They Love Them Some Category Errors

Here’s a delightful comment on an article on National Review Online

Atheists are a bit confused, they equate denying a specific nature of God with denying the existence of God. God exists in my mind and the minds of billions of other people on this planet, so denying the existence of God is a fools errand. Now we can, of course, argue all day long about the nature of God and whether there is any existence outside the human mind. (link)

As the years go by and the examples pile up, this is the kind of thinking that I’ve come to associate with religious apologists: the brazen category error that makes no allowance for context or intention.

Come to think of it, the article he’s commenting on – cheekily called Do Atheists Exist? – isn’t much better. The title’s obviously meant to be a joke, but it nevertheless identifies an article about The Sunday Assembly, an explicitly godless "church" for people who like the community and ritual aspect of church but don’t necessarily have any specific religious beliefs. Note that last bit: any specific religious beliefs. Yes, it’s not actually explicitly atheist. Their about page even says so: "We don’t do supernatural but we also won’t tell you you’re wrong if you do." So whether it’s even fair to call this atheist is a bit ambiguous. But even if we allow it, notice, again, the brazen category error. Apparently, by whatever passes for reasoning in the minds of National Review headline writers, if you like any aspect of something, you must embrace it completely. Which would make anyone who celebrates Christmas with a christmas tree a pagan if taken to its logical conclusion, really. As usual, the religious crowd has it exactly backward: it isn’t God that makes the sense of community and ritual valuable, rather it’s the sense of community and ritual that tricks people who go to church into thinking God is real. We have a human need for these things, church meets that need, and the hope among religious propagandists is that people will make exactly the mistake that National Review is making here. But if you can get community and ritual without God (which you can at any sports event), then yet another smarmy non-argument for the realtiy of God falls away. Which is no doubt why National Review chooses to taunt rather than report.

But back to the comment. Notice how this works. First he starts with the usual misunderstanding about atheism – that atheists somehow explicitly reject any possibility of the existence of God, when in fact they just decline to believe in God until there’s some evidence for the theory. Then, he proceeds to burn down the straw man in a way that wouldn’t even be convincing if the straw man version were his real opponent. It shouldn’t need to be said, unless you’re grasping at straws (to burn them! HA! I unmixed my metaphor! Take that High School Composition!), that approximately 0% of real atheists deny that some people sincerely believe in God, and would presumably accept that God "exists," for some highly dubious value of "exist," in those people’s heads. The debate has never been about that. It’s about whether God is actually real outside of their heads. Which He isn’t, sorry.

The Intelligent Design canard is another one of these. It is of course true that there is a class of scientific theories about the origin of biodiversity that see a role for a cosmic designer and that these theories are competitor theories to the evolutionary theories typically taught in schools. So, in some extremely literal sense, there is "a controversy to teach," sure. But there isn’t a controversy to teach in any meaningful sense – first, because in postulating entities we can’t hope to observe they brush with pseudoscience, and second because there’s scant evidence for them anyway. Mostly they traffick in in pointing out the facts that standard theories can’t yet explain, as though lack of total coverage of the facts had ever disqualified a scientific theory from being "the best available explanation given the evidence," which is all any scientific theory strives to be.

Yet another one came up in a recent discussion in the comments section with a troll named Simon. Simon did that thing that religious people have a (bad) habit of doing where they confuse emotional well-being with positive evidence. Basically the argument goes like this: looking at the world through an atheist lense doesn’t seem likely to answer all of my questions about the universe, so I adopt, as a working hypothesis, a worldview that involves the supernatural instead. So far so good – that’s a perfectly respectable thing to do. But it only justifies itself to the extent that it eventually tells you something verifiable about reality that you wouldn’t have known otherwise – and of course it was at this point that Simon shifted gears, started talking about his feelings instead, and became petulant and stormed off when it became apparent that in asking him what he had gotten out of his thought experiment, what I was looking for was something that spoke to the truth value of whether God really exists, not something that speaks to the emotional satisfaction one can get for associating himself with a belief system.

Finally there’s the most famous one of all: St. Anselm’s ontological argument – in which the existence of God is "proven" because it is a necessary entailment of being "the greatest thing imaginable" that it be real. That may be, but as Kant pointed out in response (300 years after the fact), that something is entailed by a concept hardly implies the thing itself is real. Triangles may necessarily have three sides, but they have three sides in reality only if there really are triangles.

Brazen category errors all. Existence in thought isn’t independent existence, and yet independent existence is what we’re talking about. Wanting a feeling of ritualized community isn’t evidence of belief in God, and yet belief in God is what we’re talking about. Accouting for all the facts isn’t always an acceptable explanation, and yet it’s explanatory power that’s relevant in judging a scientific theory. Emotional satisfaction isn’t evidence of existence, and yet it was evidence of existence that was the topic of conversation. And entailment of perfection isn’t proof of existence, and yet it’s proof of existence we’re talking about.

Category errors are, of course, by no means limited to the religious; they’re a common human failing. It’s just that as they pile up in religious arguments, I start to wonder whether the religious have any other mode of thinking.

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