Thursday, April 22, 2010

Why I Blog [Semantics Matter]

Adam Savage of Mythbusters on the Discovery Channel, this past weekend gave a talk at the Harvard Humanist Association. It was reprinted on, and I quite enjoyed reading it. Among the topics he touched on were that he was a fourth-generation atheist, that the universe is ordered and that whatever set it in motion, if anything, is unknown, and that we ought to practice mindfulness and care for one another. Perfectly reasonable positions to have, in my personal opinion.

Of course, boingboing allows comments, and where there are comments, there are trolls. No good can come of reading the comments. I wasn't a tenth through the thread before I had that familiar sensation of "I feel a blog post coming on," and I started mentally sharpening my Ka-bar while taking notes for things to hit.

We skeptics have a tendency towards specifics--that's a logical fallacy, we say, or your argument is flawed. But as my notes on topics I needed to cover multiplied, as the logical fallacies mounted, I realized that I can't deal with this in specifics. I am now going to generalize instead, and call it what it is. It's bullshit! In all its infinite variation and splendor, complete, utter, nonsensical bullshit. I realized, why would I want to go wading around in it?

I think that's what you do when you get into comment threads on blogs or websites. It's pointless, for the same reason that you don't want to mud-wrestle with pig--you get dirty and the pig enjoys it. Nobody's mind gets changed, the least articulate and least thoughtful people on both sides set the bar for the discourse.

This is a big problem for me, and I think there's a very central issue of communication right down at the "why" of it. Daniel Dennett recently published a paper titled "Preachers Who Are Not Believers." He immediately had to spend an entire page of closely-spaced type to give even a *cursory* overview of a glaring problem: the word "God" has no commonly accepted definition whatsoever. It can mean everything from an omnipotent immortal judge to the most dogmatically inoffensive poetry of the universe, and no two believers agree. (Thus, they cannot all be right, while they most certainly all could be wrong, and thus "faith" immediately fails as a source of knowledge, but I digress.)

I tear my hair out when someone says "atheists believe 'God doesn't exist.'" It's true that Existent and Nonexistent are a true dichotomy, and people always talk in terms as though it's a competition between two claims:
  • God Exists
  • God is Nonexistent
The second claim, the bucket that atheists are so commonly chucked into, immediately runs into two problems. The first claim can mean whatever you want it to, but the second is nonsensical because what doesn't exist is undefined. Semantically, it's "[_____] is nonexistent." Second, it's an indefensible position because it shifts the burden of proof to the skeptic, who is in the position of needing omniscience to say that at no time, in no place, has any God of any kind ever existed. No wonder theists love to frame the debate like this.

An atheist, by its purest definition, is someone who does NOT believe. That Greek prefix "a-" means "without." Amoral means you lack morals. Apathy means you lack sorrow. Achromatic is without color. The tattoo on my wrist means "without God," and says nothing at all about what I do, positively, believe. Belief is assent. Belief is a positive state of mental agreement. Withholding your assent, even if it's because you don't know, or think that there's no way you ever could know, is still "a-theism."

The most common way I can rephrase this is a trial by jury. The Prosecution claims "The Defendant is Guilty." The defense doesn't have the burden of proof to prove he's Innocent, they just have to establish doubt--if they do, then the jury is left in the "Not Guilty" position. You may actually believe that god is nonexistent, you may believe the defendant is actually innocent--but it's not your job to demonstrate that, it's a bad idea to let them put you there, and it's, in my opinion, foolish in the extreme to stake that out as your position, let alone make a claim of knowledge.

Someone stands up and says "God exists," as above. If your response is "I concur," even if it's your own private definition, you're a theist. Any other response means you...are...not...a...theist. "Agnostic" is a useless term to me because honestly, I don't know any atheists who do claim *knowledge* that no Gods exist. Most are honest enough to know, as I said above, that they're not omniscient. Anyone who tells me "I'm an agnostic" is actually telling me "I'm a tentative atheist" or "I'm a nonmilitant atheist." Likewise "apatheist," itself a silly neologism to say the same thing. You either believe the claim or you don't.

It keeps the burden of proof on the one making the claim--it's not my job to prove that God doesn't exist, it's not the Defense's job to prove that the defendant's innocent. If you can't demonstrate that your particular flavor of divinity is the most likely explanation, then I'm perfectly justified saying "I don't know for sure, but I'm not buying what you're selling." It's also a lot less of a conversation-stopper than "I believe that your god is nonexistent."

That's why I blog. Mixing it up in comment threads gets nobody anywhere, because the discourse is ontologically without meaning. These people are shooting in the dark, leveling rhetorical weapons at where they imagine the targets to be, and nobody understands why they invariably get told "ha ha, you missed!" in response. It's not just useless, it's actively counterproductive. Every miss makes the receiver feel more bulletproof. Every small victory makes the victor more confident and sloppy. Every comment is perceived as both based on nothing more than what side you're on. And we wonder why the conversation goes nowhere. It's this infuriating mix of both overconfidence and lazy rhetoric that makes me tear my hair out. I write blog posts because here, I control the definitions, and I have the space, the time and the word-count to articulate my points fully.

Don't misunderstand me, though: to a first approximation, the atheists are the ones who tend to be overconfident and sloppy. The theists, on the other hand, are overconfident, sloppy and fractally wrong.