Friday, November 26, 2010

The anatomy of a bad atheist argument

There is one argument against religious belief that New Atheist types love to employ, that is not only a bad argument, but one in which I can't imagine even the philosophically naive bunch that make up the New Atheist would see any rational force.

I am reading Sam Harris' The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, a book which expends a great amount of effort doing everything but what the title promises. And one of the many things he mentions that have nothing to do with the central claim he makes in the book is this argument:
There are many revealed religious available ... the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is inerrant remains a logical impossibility.
Harris uses the term "inerrant" here, but it makes no real difference to simply use the term "true," as many versions of this argument do. But pay careful attention to the term "each" in this statement. Does it mean "any particular one"? Or does it mean "all"?

If it means "all," then it is sound argument: All of the religions that make truth claims that are mutually exclusive cannot be true at the same time in the same world. But if it means "any particular one," then the argument is not sound, since it is not logically contradictory to say that one is true and the others are not, which is what each individual one (with the exception of something like Bahai, which makes the former claim) asserts.

Harris and other New Atheists such as Richard Dawkins rely on an equivocation of this term "each" to make their argument. They think that to say that "all religions cannot be true at the same time in the same world" means the same thing as "no one of them could be true at the same time in the same world." But these are two entirely different statements. And they nowhere state how you get from one to the other.

Can't we think of numerous questions on which there is a plurality of opinion as to what is true and what is false? In fact, one wonders how Harris would react to the same argument aimed at his own cherished science. There are numerous scientific controversies that have attracted mutually exclusive explanations. Is each of them false simply by virtue of the fact, that there are others that logically contradict it?

There is now a debate over Global Warming and whether it is caused by humans are not. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it is, and one saying it isn't. Under the argument of Harris and the New Atheists, neither of these positions can be true.

There is a controversy going on about whether Intelligent Design can be proven scientifically. There are two mutually exclusive sides--one saying it can, and one saying it can't. Under the atheist argument, neither one can be true.

There is a controversy over whether same-sex marriage is constitutional. There are two mutually exclusive sides in the debate: one argues it is, one that it isn't. Under this argument, both must be rejected.

I could go on. But the point is, this argument makes absolutely no sense, and it's a measure of the philosophical sophistication of the New Atheists that they think it does.

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Singring said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Singring said...

As a service to your readers, Martin, I will post the quote from Harris in its context and in its entirety (you condensed a very large part of it). Then it should become apparent in what context Harris was making the statement: basing morality on religion is not sensible because there are thousands of mutually exclusive and contradictory religions available and none are supported by evidence (this is vital in Harri's argument, which is probably why you exclude it).

Here is the passage:

'My reasons for dismissing revealed religion as a source of moral guidance have
been spelled out elsewhere,41 so I will not ride this hobbyhorse here, apart from pointing
out the obvious: (1) there are many revealed religions available to us, and they offer
mutually incompatible doctrines; (2) the scriptures of many religions, including the most
well subscribed (i.e., Christianity and Islam), countenance patently unethical practices
like slavery; (3) the faculty we use to validate religious precepts, judging the Golden Rule
to be wise and the murder of apostates to be foolish, is something we bring to scripture; it
does not, therefore, come from scripture; (4) the reasons for believing that any of the
world’s religions were “revealed” to our ancestors (rather than merely invented by men
and women who did not have the benefit of a twenty-first-century education) are either
risible or nonexistent—and the idea that each of these mutually contradictory doctrines is
inerrant remains a logical impossibility.'

Martin Cothran said...

No, sorry Singring. You're conflating several different arguments. I only quoted one of them and the last one to which you refer makes no difference to the first one. It is another argument altogether.

Notice that the term "reasons" in the first sentence is plural. That means there are more than one of them. Then go down and read the arguments (plural) themselves. If you think the last one is a part of the first one, then you're going to have to explain why.

But the first argument is an argument about logical consistency among various religions, and the last one, which you think is somehow a part of the first, is about the reasons for believing any one of them was revealed or not.

The last one provides no context at all for the first. It is a completely different and independent argument.

Good try though.

Singring said...

I'll leave it up to everyonw else to decide what Sam Harris was saying.

Martin Cothran said...

Good idea.