A Lengthy Exchange with Georgia State Senator Josh McKoon

If you follow me on Twitter, then you know that Georgia State Senator Josh McKoon and I have gone a few rounds on RFRA, gay rights, and various other social issues. He gained national attention over the last couple of years for his push to pass a RFRA law in Georgia. Josh is a bright, high profile attorney from Columbus,  Georgia and given that profile and his busy schedule, I am always appreciative of the opportunity to trade intellectual salvos with him. We disagree on nearly every social issue we discuss. I think it’s fair to say that Josh is very much influenced by his brand of conservative Catholicism and I of course am very much influenced by my humanism.

Our latest conversation was around anti-LGBT language that had been appended to an adoption bill. As of yesterday, Georgia Voice is reporting that:

That anti-LGBT amendment to a Georgia adoption bill might just be dead in the water. Senate Rules Committee Chairman Jeff Mullis (R-Chickamauga) announced that House Bill 159 would be sent back to the Judiciary Committee for more work because the bill had become too ‘extreme.’”

Essentially the amendment would let “faith-based” adoption agencies, many of which accept tax dollars, turn away gay couples who were looking to adopt a child. Josh is of course on the side of the faith-based agencies, seeing this refusal to provide a service, as a First Amendment right to free exercise of religion. I see this as people who provide a service, using religion as an excuse to discriminate against a specific group of tax-paying Georgians.

Here is our exchange. It’s fairly long and took place over the course of a couple of days as I stole a few moments to check my mobile from time to time, but I think the exchange was quite interesting. I welcome your feedback and as always, happy critical thinking!

Here comes a pivot.

Yeah I went there. My excuse was that I hadn’t had my second cup of coffee yet!

Here I was finally able to ask a question that started addressing the root cause:

Notice he did not answer the question:

Josh shifted his focus to another person and responded to him with the following. Allowing me one last question which of course went unanswered.

Primum non nocere.

 

On Deepities

I love language. I also love, to borrow from Lois Lowry’s The Giver, precision of language. I have no issue with big words or even long sentences, but I do have a problem when people use big words and long sentences as a means to confound, and inexplicably impress, their target audiences.

Skeptics like Daniel Dennett and Peter Boghossian have charitably called these phrases, “deepities.” Others might just call them bullshit, but for this post we’ll stick with Dennett’s original word, “deepity!”

A deepity is a string of meaningless, often high-sounding words that have no precise meaning whatsoever, but boy do they sound impressive!

There are certain domains of human pursuit where deepities are offered as explanations all the time. Religion and to a lesser extent, philosophy are two such domains. Deepak Chopra is legendary for his ability to weave mysticism and physics terms in to rambling, incoherent nonsense that his fans absolutely eat up!

Below is the tweet Deepak currently has pinned to his twitter feed:

What the heck does that even mean? Consciousness is the constant of all constants? I can almost guarantee that if you asked Deepak to provide operational definitions for his idea of “consciousness” and his idea of “constants,” you would be drawn in to a thirty-minute lecture on quantum consciousness and quasi-God enlightenment paradigms, the conclusion of which would leave you wanting either a cheeseburger or a lobotomy.

Deepities are not limited to the professionals either. Here’s a twitter exchange I had just yesterday. You’ll notice that I use the Socratic method. It’s a very effective technique to cut through deepities.

The C.S. Lewis quote wasn’t a deepity insomuch as it was a claim to knowledge that has no evidence. So I simply responded with a question that targeted the more general question around, “why should we believe him,” rather than target the claim about God and Satan itself.

The deepity came in the answer I received:

“Lewis expressed truths of Scripture uniquely. It’s true.”

Never mind the discussion about what exactly does Pressing On Ed mean by a “truth of Scripture,” and why he thinks it’s a good thing to have to be unique about making sense of something that’s allegedly true? In other words, for something allegedly so important, shouldn’t we all be able to conclude whether or not it’s true without needing a unique translation of English in to English?

But rather than go down that road, I was more curious about how one determines a “truth of Scripture.”

“Personal faith & study by comparing what the Bible says about truth w/ what really happens.”

The next answer I received was a bit more straightforward. We were cutting through the deepities. There were still some nonsensical phrases like “personal faith,” but it sounded like we might be getting somewhere with a testable claim!  Comparing something that the Bible says is true, with what actually occurs in reality, sounds like something we can actually do!

Alas, my request for Pressing On Ed to provide an example of this test has gone unanswered. Maybe he is researching and will get back to me.

Until then, be on guard for deepities and happy critical thinking!

Facebook conversation with a preacher

I wanted to share a Facebook conversation about faith that I was having with a “rising star” local preacher on his public page. I’m not sure if he was busy or what, but I found his responses to be remarkably ambiguous and vague. I didn’t expect to change his mind on anything, but hopefully his 4300 followers will read this exchange and maybe it will cause some of them to scratch their heads regarding their confidence in the methods they are using to determine what they believe is true.

Also, I used my public Facebook page in the hopes that people may ask me questions. Even though this was a public conversation, I blurred the names and pictures to maintain a level of respectful discourse. This is an example of what I call, Facebook Street Epistemology.

As expected, I did not get a response to my final question.

Happy critical thinking!

 

Apologetics and Presuppositional Circular Arguments

Diagram of a Presuppositional Argument

First, I want to know things that are true. To this end, I have been chatting with folks about a number of different God beliefs lately. I have seen quite a few very interesting, if not sometimes contortionist, arguments.  One such argument that I am running in to among certain, I will call them extreme apologetics practitioners, takes the form of the following:

X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real.

It is a presuppositional argument, which basically means that it posits the belief ahead of any subsequent dialogue that seeks to discover the veracity of the belief. Its circular nature if granted makes the argument impenetrable to reasonable scrutiny. Which means that it is unfalsibable and therefore unhelpful for determining what is actually true.

Watch:

X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because X is required to know if X is real or not, therefore by claiming X is not real, you are confirming X must be real because…

By writing the argument this way, we see that it is a linguistic trick, not an intellectually honest attempt to support a claim. If you still do not believe me, just plug in anything for X.

Billy the Cosmic Gnome must be real because Billy the Cosmic Gnome is required to know if Billy the Cosmic Gnome is real or not, therefore by claiming Billy the Cosmic Gnome is not real, you are confirming Billy the Cosmic Gnome must be real.

Go Billy the Cosmic Gnome! This is of course, silly. Beliefs are true to the degree that they comport with what is demonstrably real. And like I said, I want to know things that are true.

Happy critical thinking!

It Is Good To Get Gobsmacked!

“Learning to Value Reason and Evidence, and Recognizing When That’s Just Not Enough.”

Listen to the audio version

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I grew up going to church, and not just any church, mind you, but a Southern Baptist church. Not just any Southern Baptist church, but a small church planted firmly in the then relatively rural American South.

Every Sunday morning for as long as I can remember, I’d rise from my slumber, make my way downstairs in my pajamas to my Mom’s breakfast of cream of wheat, and tune in to a syndicated episode of “Lost in Space” on our tiny, black-and-white kitchen TV. Then I would head back upstairs for a quick transformation into semi-formal Sunday clothes – which basically meant an outfit that landed somewhere between school clothes and a suit with a clip-on tie. I would then bid adieu to the Robinsons and the Robot, and, with my little King James Bible in hand, be whisked off to Sunday school.

I have fond memories of that church. Memories of me waiting for my parents to arrive for the main Sunday service, sitting alone in the pews after attending my Sunday school class. This was what one might call an old-time Southern Baptist church full of old-time religion. Old songs were sung from old hymnals by an old choir and to a fairly old congregation. We sang “How Great Thou Art,” “Old-Time Religion,” “Nothing but the Blood of Jesus,” and of course, “Amazing Grace.” The pulpit was book-ended by an organist and a pianist and the preacher would always start low and end high with the zeal one would expect from a preacher with some of that old-time religion! For better or worse, whether it was that this church was only a few miles from where I grew up or whether it was some “spiritual” connection my parents felt, this was our church.

I had ridden the peaks and valleys of weekly salvation and damnation for years. The whole emotional enterprise seemed to be going along just fine, but then something interesting happened. One Sunday when I was around twelve years old, I was given a Xerox copy of a list of bands and songs that I was, from that point forward, to consider as “devil” music. Yes, devil music. According to my church, listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” was blasphemy. Anything by Black Sabbath was a one-way ticket to hell. Even Gary Wright’s “Dream Weaver” meant that I was astral projecting and thus opening a door for The Enemy! As a child of the seventies, I had been jamming to this music for nearly as long as I could remember. I had a KISS t-shirt when I was in the first grade for crying out loud! I adored most of the music on this sheet. It didn’t make any sense. My young brain was set into analytical motion. I thought the whole thing was preposterous. I was not worshipping the devil. Regardless, getting this message from my quaint, bucolic church was a shock to my pious young system.

Looking back, it was around that time that I really started questioning the validity of what people in authority were telling me. I began comparing claims that did not rely on evidence with those that did. I was told that Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark were true stories, yet I watched documentaries about Lucy the Australopithecus afarensis on PBS’ Nature. I was told that my god created the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants in six literal days, yet I watched Carl Sagan explain the evidence for Big Bang cosmology on Cosmos. I began to compare each claim I was told to believe without question to what could be supported using reason and evidence. I no longer relied on the earnestness or the authority of the person doing the telling; I wanted proof!

Fast-forward to today, and it occurs to me that I have promoted critical thinking by valuing reason and evidence my entire adult life. I have argued, debated, chatted, typed, tweeted, and talked about a whole host of beliefs that people maintain based on unreliable methods. Invariably, at the conclusion of many of these discussions, just when I thought I had hit a logic home run or a made an evidence slam dunk, my interlocutor would leave the conversation with even more resolve. But why?

If you are reading this on the Street Epistemology blog then of course you already know why.

For years, I had been supporting my positions using reason and evidence, but I was missing the greater contextual picture: epistemology. I remember listening to a Dr. Peter Boghossian lecture on YouTube several years ago where he explained his idea of conducting a sort of “street epistemology.” I was gobsmacked. All these years I had been trying to convince people that their claims were untrue by using methods that would have worked perfectly well on me. I was using reason and evidence on people who had formed beliefs based on something other than reason and evidence! Hence, the outcome was often an impasse, or worse, a doubling down on the mistaken belief. I now know that I was practically cultivating the backfire effect! I am reminded of the famous Thomas Paine quote from The American Crises:

“To argue with a man who has renounced the use and authority of reason, and whose philosophy consists in holding humanity in contempt, is like administering medicine to the dead, or endeavoring to convert an atheist by scripture. Enjoy, sir, your insensibility of feeling and reflecting. It is the prerogative of animals.”

Thomas Paine needed some Street Epistemology! But I can appreciate Paine’s frustration. Decoupling people from beliefs not grounded in reality is not a binary exercise. It’s farming, not hunting. It takes time. It takes patience. I believe it takes practice. I have been deploying the techniques more and more frequently when speaking with people on a whole range of beliefs that do not comport with reality, and I am seeing hints of success.

From global warming deniers to people who believe demons are real, I am now trying to resist the old urge to ridicule as a means of retort and I am even trying to resist my knee-jerk reliance on evidence as the tool that might convince them they are wrong (see Paine above). I am now trying to help people recognize their own epistemic deficiencies. I want them to poke their own holes in the methods they are relying upon for determining what they believe is true. They have to change their own minds. I’m now simply helping them clear the path. I have already noticed an improvement in results.

For example, in a recent Facebook exchange about politics (among the most futile activities one can imagine), and specifically, a conversation about how Donald Trump continues to make claims that are untrue, I was able to deploy a little Socratic SE to help my interlocutor understand the double standard with which he was excusing Trump’s lies. The exchange went something like this. Trump had just tweeted something that was demonstrably untrue.

Me: “Why do you think Trump would tweet something that’s just incorrect?”
IL: “Because he is frustrated because the Dems are using childish tactics to hold up the government because they lost an election and lost seats.”
Me: “Does that mean it’s OK to lie?”
IL: “You mean like every politician?”
Me: “So if I understand you correctly, you’re actually OK with politicians lying because you expect that from them? I don’t recall you making that same excuse for Hillary Clinton.”

My interlocutor disengaged and I did not press. I was not going to change his mind at that moment, but I was hopeful that I had done enough to cause him to reevaluate his own partisan bias. A few days later, he was actually posting criticisms of Donald Trump! I am not sure if I planted the seed of doubt that took root and sprouted into a single sprig of some healthy skepticism, or if it was something else, but I was again gobsmacked given my interlocutor’s history of doubling down on his partisanship.

Interventions on Facebook, while accessible, may not be the most effective. That said, we are all learning as we go. If we can continue to plant seeds of good epistemology, no matter the medium and no matter the conversation, we can make progress. My next goal is to have a face-to-face conversation with a complete stranger. We should all set our own stretch goals that push us to extend critical thinking to those around us. It takes practice.

Fundamentally, I am looking forward to deploying Street Epistemology in conversations anywhere and everywhere, whenever I hear claims being made that are not supported by evidence.

The journey, and hopefully the gobsmacking, continues!

-Ryan

Ryan Bays is a writer, Dungeon Master, free-thinker, truth seeker, and unabashed promoter of critical thinking and scientific literacy.

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