|A collaboration with WorldsandCenturies|
Full title: The Comprehensive Guide to Debating Theists, Religious Fundamentalists, Religious Apologists, Conspiracy Theorists, New-Agers, Believers in the Paranormal, and other Dogmatists. Part Two.
Do not confuse ideas with those who hold them. Any given idea or dogma may be insane or foolish, but that does not mean those who subscribe to them are. Many can be every bit as bright and smart as you, even more so. Why then do they hold these beliefs? There are a variety of reasons and factors that go into this, the exploration of which is another subject for another time. Suffice it to say that everyone, you, me, even the smartest people you know, have intellectual blind spots. If you lose sight of this, it will often translate to a level of disrespect for your opponent that even those most careful cannot fully keep from tinging their words and tone (more on the importance of respect later).
And intelligent dogmatists are also astonishingly adept at arguing their points. Intelligence doesn’t mean one is correct, but it means one can sometimes argue more convincingly about something which is incorrect. The smarter a dogmatist is, the more cleverly they will rationalize their beliefs, and the better they'll be at debating. Intelligence is a tool, one that can be put to the uses of skepticism, or put to the use of apologia. Debating such people generally entails being more thorough, and more methodical. Their points must be dissected and torn down brick by brick. Be prepared to delve down into dozens of rabbit holes, each one leading to others still deeper. Every point you make will be contested, often at the premise, and you must be patient. Do not expect them to concede anything, at least not easily. Intelligence does not necessarily translate to honesty. Not in them, and not in you, either. Honesty is perhaps the most important thing in productive conversations (and in life, too), but yours will be used against you and twisted, fashioned into a weapon which your opponent will wield cunningly and without shame. It is completely understandable why a sane person with a life would want to avoid debates with such people. To these intelligent dogmatists, this avoidance or the abandonment of debates midway from their opponents are seen as a victory, a sign that they are correct. Galling though it is to see such people stroking themselves like caged simians, if you are not prepared or willing to follow them into wonderland for what are usually very, very long and involved debates, then you are wasting your time. Such people require an all-or-nothing mentality. Either engage fully in an ideological war of attrition, or don’t bother.
- Differing Core Values
The scientific worldview is what lies at the heart of the rationalist and the scientific skeptic. The philosophical core of this worldview can be expressed in a short list of essential values; foundational principles of paramount importance. These are evidence, observation, scientific skepticism, reason, logical consistency, intellectual honesty, and parsimony. And these come as a package. Used in isolation, many of these can lead to erroneous conclusions. It is not uncommon for religious believers (usually Catholics), for example, to pose arguments in favor of their faith which are logically sound, but which are built upon false premises.
What far too many fellow rationalists fail to fully wrap their minds around, is that these core values are not necessarily shared by other people. That’s not to say many if not most people do not value them at all, but they are not the philosophical foundation of their worldview as they are with ours. That makes all the difference. In same cases, you will encounter people for whom some of these values do in fact mean very little. It is important to understand this difference between you and your opponent. When you drill down past someone’s style and tactics, past their personality, past their emotions and even past their beliefs, you hit bedrock at their core values. Recognizing these differences can make sense out of otherwise mind-boggling encounters.
The starkest difference is commonly in the value of evidence. As stated, you will occasionally encounter the odd - and refreshingly honest - individual dogmatist who will indeed come out and admit that evidence is not of particularly high importance to them. As for the rest, they will claim to value evidence, but their beliefs and reasonings betray their assertions. If you believe something on flimsy, circumstantial, or nonexistent evidence, or in the face of contrary evidence, then your insistence that you value evidence is little more than empty words. Some dogmatists get around this by simply defining evidence, and the other core values of a scientific worldview, in a much broader and more lax manner, one which encompasses things like personal experiences, or single unsubstantiated eye-witness accounts, for example, as being legitimate evidence alongside any verified scientific data. Others simply play a game of misdirection, saying one thing, but doing another. Their words insist they value evidence, but their beliefs tell another story, one of wishful thinking, emotional bias, and feelings. It is understandable, of course. Any semi-educated person of moderately sound mental faculties can plainly see that the optics of openly admitting that they care more about what makes them feel good than evidence are terrible. And so while they’ll formulate arguments and lines of reasoning that essentially express this, they will insist the opposite, and will become indignant should you suggest a discrepancy.
The reason this is such a roadblock to productive debates is that you and your opponent don’t just hold different views, or see the world in different ways; you want different things in this world. You, the rationalist and scientific skeptic, want the truth. The dogmatist usually wants to some form of solace, comfort, or assurance. Theists want justice, to see their loved ones in the afterlife, meaning in the ultimate cosmic sense, conspiracy theorists tend to want boogeymen to scapegoat their own failures and misfortunes onto, and so on. Truth matters to many of them, but it is not the most important. Reason matters to many of them, but it is not the most important. And this puts you at an impasse. As neuroscientist Sam Harris has asked, what evidence can you provide someone who doesn’t value evidence, to prove to them that they should? What reason could you give someone who doesn't value reason to demonstrate to them that they should? You are essentially speaking different languages, broadcasting on different wavelengths. One of the most important aspects of your opponent worth ascertaining is to what degree they share your core values. There are some dogmatists who do share your values, but through lack of education, information, indoctrination, and other factors, currently hold their beliefs. They can be reached. Once upon a time, I was one such dogmatist. As for the rest, you can still plant seeds of doubt and skepticism, and that is dependent on you trying to speak to their values, and, in whatever way you can, nudging them in the direction of valuing yours a bit more. Such evolutions can occur, but as with biological ones, they take place gradually, and by increments. You can contribute to this if you are diligent and perceptive.
- Some people are not open to change
Cynics will say this is nearly always the case, but the truth is not quite so gloomy. Very few people are open to, or indeed capable of, an on-the-spot change of mind on an issue where they have a strong opinion. You will generally not be the driver that takes your opponent to their destination, but you can in some cases reprogram their GPS without their realizing it, setting them on a different course that will eventually lead somewhere near. However, it is true that many people, perhaps even a majority, are extremely closed to change. If you have identified such a person, don’t fret; you haven’t just wasted your time, but refocus your strategy on the audience instead. If your opponent is unconvincible, then your target audience becomes everyone else who can or may see the debate. You need not take the same level of care in trying to get through to your opponent, and can be a bit more liberal in your rhetorical flourishes. Draw humorous comparisons, highlight absurdities without pulling punches, and be funny. Put on a show, an intellectually honest show, but a show nonetheless. To see this approach in glorious action, watch Christopher Hitchens in his many debates. They are very useful, instructive, and compelling, but more than anything, entertaining.
- Emotional bias and personal experience
You will find yourself, from time to time, engaged in debates with people who harbor a very deep-seated bias born out their personal connection or emotional experience related to the issue at hand, and this isn’t relegated merely to truth debates with dogmatists, this applies across the board. Debating the existence of god with a theist who has had a spiritual or transcendent experience, debating about the flaws of an industry to someone who’s spent years working in it, and especially debating the ethics of an enterprise to someone who’s been a part of it, these debates are often hamstrung right out of the gate. Why? Because your opponent is too invested emotionally, too connected personally, and too close to it; unable to pull back from their own experience to see a wider picture, or consider outside perspectives. Such people are, often times, among the most closed-minded individuals you are ever likely to come across. You’re looking to have a relatively objective debate about something, evaluating and weighing its merits or flaws. To you, it’s intellectual. To your opponent, it’s personal. Your opponent is interpreting your every point through the sole lens of their experience and emotion, and similarly, they're interpreting your every critique not as a debate of ideas, but as a personal attack, an attempt to assault their character or delegitimize their experience(s).
To such people, their closeness to and experience in the subject at hand grants them an unassailable level of understanding, knowledge, and wisdom. Experience grants some of those things some of the time, but often one’s sense of it is grossly exaggerated. What often comes along with this is a complete and utter close-mindedness to change, the inability to be objective or dispassionate (or even civil, in some cases), along with the clouding of one’s reasoning and judgement. Those “in the know” based on their experience, tend to consider themselves more qualified than you to speak of such things. Not infrequently however, the pros of their experience may be outweighed - for the purposes of having productive conversations - by the cons listed above, offset by the close-minded tunnel vision that the experience which granted it also encumbers them with. This isn’t to say that personal experience is worthless, far from it, but it doesn’t make someone right automatically, it doesn’t negate the necessity for sound arguments, valid points, or evidence, and the unfortunate (but predictable) side effects of it render debates and discussions strained and often fruitless.
And apart from being closed to change, the true roadblock this puts in the way of productive dialogue is that it instills in one a sense of superiority, that the debate is one between them, the person who’s “been there” or “understands,” and you, the mouthy layperson. Your opponent has no interest in honestly considering your arguments, does not care about the merit of your points, the evidence, and so on, because you, by virtue of your lack of experience in their eyes, are not on their level, and therefore nothing you say holds weight with them. They don't see it as a debate of equals, but rather one of superior (them) to inferior (you). Their mindset is not to have a debate among peers, but to put you in your place, to set you straight, and that poisons the conversation from the outset.
- The failure to see an opponent as an equal
One of the ground rules that must be present for a productive debate to be had, is some level of mutual respect. You may disagree with the other person, you may find their beliefs or ideas to be absurd, insane, or stupid, but you must regard them as an equal, as a fellow human and potential friend from whom you may in fact learn something. This goes beyond simply treating your opponent with civility and decency, but in how you regard them. If you truly do not think your opponent is on your level, or could possibly have something they might teach you, or if your opponent feels this way about you, whatever will transpire between you is not in the spirit of true intellectual debate; it is merely an argument, a shouting match, or a war of words. The failure to see one another as equals almost always translates to some level of disrespect, close-mindedness to change, and the prioritization of "winning" rather than getting through or changing minds. Achieving this is no easy task, but as with many things in life, the most difficult tend to be the most rewarding. Of course, this has to be a two-way street, and it only takes the lack of respect from one party to impede a meaningful exchange. You must do your part, and if it becomes clear that you opponent cannot do the same, then as with before, shift gears and focus instead on the audience.
I'm on YouTube.
“What do you think the world today would be like without monotheism?”
Let me get out my crystal ball... Of course, the further back one goes in time, the more difficult it is to estimate such things. Monotheism traces back to Zoroastrianism, a Middle Eastern religion dating around the 6th century BCE, and still active today, though centuries of Muslim persecution have whittled their numbers for about five million I believe. Zoroastrianism was the first monotheism, and was the inspiration for the monotheism within Judaism. Though the earliest texts and traditions of the Jews were in existence several hundred years before Zoroastrianism, Judaism was not, in its early days, a true monotheism. They worshipped only one god, yes, but they did not believe only one god existed. Read the Old Testament, and you will see, in English, as in the original Hebrew, the language in which other gods are spoken of is one of rival gods, not of imaginary fabrications. This was why the author of the Book of Jonah had him run from Yahweh, an act of such obvious futility to contemporary monotheists as to be absurd, but it was then believed that different regions each had their own provincial deities, and Jonah had hoped to cross this border, like a criminal fleeing the authorities into another country. That Yahweh caught up with him regardless was the author's way of impressing the singular power of their god.
I digress. I think the world might be a better place today, had it not been for monotheism. Monotheism, in its Abrahamic iterations, proved itself quite intolerant, murderous, and a hindrance to progress. The counter point is one of the hackneyed themes of nearly every time-travel science fiction, where virtually any and all changes made to the past inevitably render the present even worse. But I don't think so. Various ancient Greek philosophers laid the foundations for scientific and Enlightenment thinking, notions which were buried during the Christian Dark Ages to be rediscovered, in some cases, over two millennia later anew. I have no illusions as to the other religions; I'm sure they would have committed travesties, atrocities, and brutalities of their own (in addition to those they already have), but if I had to wager, they'd have done a better job than the Abrahamists.
"Did you know that recent archeological evidence indicates that Jewish slaves did not actually build the pyramids in Egypt? It was in fact hordes of paid labourers.”
I did. When the state of Israel was formed in 1948, a state-funded archaeological expedition was launched in hopes of proving the historical veracity of the Exodus tale in hopes of establishing the Biblical claim that the Jews believe they have over that land. Despite all their confirmation bias and best efforts, no evidence has been found. Most Biblical historians conclude that the Pentateuch (Five books of Moses, or first five books of the Bible), are little more than mythology. Some later books do posses some degree of historicity, it must be noted. The more recent findings the questioner referred to - that tombs of some pyramid builders were discovered, and appear to have been those of paid workers, not slaves - is in line with the other evidence.
"What are your thoughts on Mormonism, also known as the LDS (Latter Day Saints) Church."
Let me preface this by saying I'm no expert on Mormonism, though I've read the "Book of Mormon" as well as the "Pearl of Great Price," and it doesn't seem a religion all that different from the rest. It's an instructive religion, because it illustrates the fact that time lends a sort of gravitas, mystique, and air of legitimacy - not always deserved, and in fact, rarely so - to ideas and traditions. Had Joseph Smith stumbled upon a time machine instead of his imaginary golden plates (which no one else was ever allowed to see, and which told him, among other things, that he must be allowed to sleep with his maid) he would today be numbered among the great prophets and patriarchs of world religion (for Mormonism may well be much larger and widespread were it older). As it is, even in credulous 19th century America, old Joe found himself a convicted fraudster and con man. Smith and his religion are just as the older religions would seem to us had they only been created within the past two hundred years. In particular, the ritualism of Mormonism strikes some people as strange or creepy (i.e. magic underpants). Coming from a religious Jewish background, perhaps I can relate better than most to weird ritual. Still, there are corollaries in Islam and Catholicism, though few in Protestantism, the water-downed, plebeian Walmart of religion that it is.
One thing I enjoy about Mormonism, from a purely mythological point of view, is that Mormonism is one of the only full-fledged religions (of which I don't really count Scientology) that incorporates elements of science fiction into it. The Pearl of Great Price, for example, features a segment, more or less, of "deleted scenes" of the Abraham story, where Yahweh takes Abe on a magical mystery tour of the cosmos, to the stars and galaxies and distant worlds. I thought that was pretty trippy. The kind of thing which would never have been in the original, since so much less was known in the first millennium BCE about astronomy. I also find the belief that after death, the pious can become gods of their own planet a pretty neat deal. Certainly beats 72 virgins (or "white raisins" depending on translation) in Islam, or the dystopian bliss of the Christian heaven (where you either suffer the knowledge of loved ones burning for thought crimes, or have happiness imposed on you to override it).
"You are put in charge of a new government in the USA. What system do you put in and how do you style yourself (i.e. Mr President, Commander, Prime Minister etc...)"
To answer the second part first, I don't have much a preference. I wouldn't want it to give the wrong impression, or sound pretentious or vainglorious. Perhaps I'd just stick with President.
The kind of system I'd put in place would be a secular representative democracy, one which more accurately and proportionally represents the citizens than the current US system does. Economically, it would incorporate elements of both capitalism and socialism. There would a comprehensive list of human rights, a robust social safety net and consumer protections built directly into the constitution, as would strong anti-corruption provisions. Anyone seeking to run for high office would also need to pass a number of meritocratic hurdles before being eligible to run, including but not limited to level of education, time spent living abroad, a minimum amount of community service, and scientific literacy. One specific idea which I would like to see implemented experimentally, perhaps just in specific areas as a trial run, would be a universal basic income. I'm very intrigued by that, and am eager to see if it works.
"What are your favourite types of music?"
I'm not a big music person in general. I more often listen to audiobooks, podcasts, and when they're on, NHL hockey games (audio streamed off my phone). Even so, I do listen to music, mostly at the gym these days, and my favorite genre has long been pop-punk (my favorite band is Green Day). Other genres I enjoy include alternative, Celtic folk, ambient, classical/orchestral, funk, and soul.
"Do you think alien life would look more outworldly as in something completely different from anything on Earth or do you think that there'd be some fairly significant similarities between alien life and Earth life? Hands, wings, eyes, etc. "
My hunch would be to ere on the side of more alien as opposed to more familiar, given how biased, egocentric, and unimaginative we humans tend to be when envisioning such things. Assuming we're dealing with biological beings and not AI's - and I suspect many of them are out there - I would expect there to be some basic biological similarities, such as DNA or something equivalent, sensory organs or apparatuses, the requirement to ingest or otherwise absorb energy and/or nutrients, and so forth. The cosmos is a very big place, however, and it would not surprise me to learn that somewhere there are beings similar enough to us that we could relate quite well in most facets of life, but I'd expect such species to be exceedingly few and far between. Whether we could ever find one another, across such vast distances, and coincidentally during the brief cosmic window in which both our species exist, seems sadly remote...
"What's the most non-negotiable moral code you have? What scenario, no matter how unlikely or impossible it may be, would you see yourself supporting it?"
I thought about this for a while, and am unable to produce any true non-negotiables. There are always exceptions and extenuating circumstances, however unlikely. If the world were at stake, for example, and its salvation depended on my jettisoning a deeply held moral precept, I would do it, and I would regard the failure to do so as monstrous. Now the desire to prevent what Sam Harris refers to as the "worst possible misery for everyone" in his "The Moral Landscape," could perhaps qualify as a non-negotiable, but only because it is, by definition, the worst possible thing which could happen. It therefore follows that there would never be a scenario in which I would willingly impose such a thing in order to prevent a yet worse fate, because there can be no worse fate.
"If some incredibly powerful being came down to you and claimed it was God, what tests would you want it to pass to prove that it really is God and not an alien fucking with you?"
Arthur C. Clarke's "third law" - that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - is a pretty sound one, and difficult to get around. I would want any such being to violate multiple laws of nature, as well as logical paradoxes. If a being could do those things, but is not in fact a god, it's a difference without a distinction as far as I'm concerned.
My focus with this page is ideologically themed pictures and writing, pertaining to religion, science, philosophy, politics, history, social commentary, and other related subjects. My journal entries will predominantly be short essays on these subjects, with some book reviews too.
Because I discuss such a wide variety of issues, there's bound to be some points of disagreement. If you disagree with me, let's talk about it. Maybe I'll change my mind, maybe you'll change yours. Maybe we'll both walk away with more nuanced views. People gravitate to echo chambers, but we would all benefit from a little more exposure to different viewpoints.
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