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Playing Chess with Pigeons

I recently bought a new Mac t-shirt which features the words “I think, therefore iMac”. It’s a classic in formal geek attire, of course, along with my others with quotes such as “Hello, I’m a Mac” and “Think Different”.

On a seemingly unconnected subject, when I’m debating with people (as I often do) I usually notice that my opponents have an obvious lack of skill in the area of the basics of correct debating style and often indulge in obvious errors of logic.

How are these two factoids linked? They both involve philosophy! Well, sort of.

One of my favourite annoying habits when asked about the Apple t-shirt is to explain the meaning of the phrase by going back to French philosopher Rene Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” or “cogito ergo sum”. So that’s the philosophy link for the first item.

Many people fail to debate effectively because they don’t understand logical fallacies, another important part of philosophy. Unfortunately they are often so ignorant of these fallacies that they don’t even realise they’ve lost the debate.

There’s a classic quote regarding debating with creationists which I think is relevant. It’s: “Debating creationists on the topic of evolution is rather like trying to play chess with a pigeon; it knocks the pieces over, craps on the board, and flies back to its flock to claim victory. – Scott D. Weitzenhoffer”.

I don’t claim to be an expert on philosophy (far from it) but I have a vague interest in the subject, especially the fallacies because they so often arise in the skeptical examination of different topics. So I thought in this blog entry I might mention one of my favourite logical fallacies – of course it’s one my opponents use, not me!

A fallacy which often appears when debating religion is special pleading. Here’s an explanation and example I got from a poster on the subject of logical fallacies…

Special Pleading: Moving the goalposts or making up exceptions when a claim is shown to be false. Humans are funny creatures and have a foolish aversion to being wrong. Rather than appreciate the benefits of being able to change one’s mind through better understanding, many will invent ways to cling to old beliefs.

Example: Edward Johns claimed to be psychic, but when his “abilities” were tested under proper scientific conditions, they magically disappeared. Edward explained this saying that one had to have faith in his abilities for them to work.

In fact, every time someone with claimed paranormal abilities (ESP, clairvoyance, faith healing, dowsing, etc) is tested in a properly controlled situation they fail, even if they have agreed to the conditions before the test.

When it comes to religion I frequently hear special pleading arguments. When a person is asked to show evidence supporting their beliefs they say that their knowledge of reality is special and is not open to scientific testing. But they would never accept the same special treatment they demand for themselves being applied to any other person or group.

For example they might say that being healed by prayer cannot be tested by science yet if another cult, especially one which isn’t part of a mainstream religion, claims that they have special healing powers but offer no proof they will immediately reject that as superstition.

What they cannot see is that to someone with no specific attachment to a religious belief (for example, an atheist) all of the belief systems, including theirs, look about the same: they are all just different examples of superstition.

All I ask of these people is that they put themselves in the position of someone else and look at how their beliefs hold up to unbiased scrutiny. If you are a Mormon, for example, look at how a Catholic must see you when you say you believe in a book which has been proven wrong beyond any reasonable doubt.

If you really believe that your form of faith, or unsupported belief, or superstition (call it whatever you want) is really any different then there’s a good chance you are deluded and you probably invoke special pleading with monotonous regularity.

When it comes to the defence of one religious position over others remember one thing: you can’t all be right, but you can all be wrong!

  1. Alex Jones
    May 14, 2012 at 8:12 am

    Philosophy is a way of life rather than an intellectual exercise lived in the head. Philosophy converts knowledge into practical wisdom, it touches on science, religion and metaphysics.

    If a child believes there is a monster under the bed, then practical wisdom comes into play to go looking for the monster with the child, this will settle the child’s mind rather than just dismissing their fears.

  2. ojb42
    May 14, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I don’t think philosophy is a way of life any more than any other area of intellectual practice or knowledge is. I agree that it touches on the subject areas you mentioned, plus others.

    I also agree that looking for the monster is a good idea. We should never assume that something doesn’t exist or that it does. But we shouldn’t use a method to look for the monster which is designed to find it even when it doesn’t actually exist.

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