Sunday, 25 May 2014

Starting From The Conclusion

Recently, I've been reading A Manual for Creating Atheists by Peter Boghossian. Its purpose is to create 'Street Epistemologists' who can casually engage people in gentle, non-threatening conversations about faith and sow the seeds of Atheism by asking the right questions or making the right point at the right place in a conversation. The weak-point in theistic argument is of course the thing they regard as their strength - their faith in faith as a valid way to determine truth.

But, without evidence, faith is nothing more substantial than pretending to know things you don't know. In effect, the conclusion is whatever the 'faithful' want it to be. As Peter Boghossian goes on the say:

Whenever one is arguing against X, the danger is that one becomes unreflectively counter-X. One of the most insufferable things in discussions with the faithful is the experience of speaking to someone who’s doxastically closed. When someone suffers from a doxastic pathology, they tend to not really listen to an argument, to not carefully think through alternatives, and to lead with their conclusion and work backward (this is called “confirmation bias”). The moment we’re unshakably convinced we possess immutable truth, we become our own doxastic enemy. Our epistemic problems have begun the moment we're convinced we've latched on to an eternal, timeless truth. (And yes, even the last two sentences should be held as tentatively true.) Few things are more dangerous than people who think they're in possession of absolute truth . Honest inquirers with sincere questions and an open mind rarely contribute to the misery of the world. Passionate, doxastically closed believers contribute to human suffering and inhibit human well-being.

Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 1220-1227). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.

Go to any online forum for debate where theists and especially fundamentalist loons congregate to try to present themselves as leading authorities on science, such as the Atheism Vs Theism group on Facebook, or the #Atheist hashtag on Twitter, or the comment section in this blog on occasion, and you can't miss people confidently arguing against well-established scientific principles such as Big Bang cosmology, Quantum Mechanics or Evolution from a position of almost total ignorance of the subjects and very little idea even of what science is or what exactly constitutes evidence or a logical construct.

This loon actually believed Darwin had inadvertently admitted he didn't believe in
evolution, so Darwin is his favourite authority when he needs to appeal to one
to confirm creationism.
The reason for this confidence? The science doesn't support the conclusion, so it must be wrong. On the other hand, 'expertise' in the subject will be demonstrated by a handful of cherry-picked and often incomplete quotes from 'scientists' such as Newton, Bacon, Einstein, refuted or withdrawn claims and science which has long since been superseded, such as Pasteur's 'Spontaneous Generation' experiment, or even some obscure physicist pronouncing on evolution and obviously not understanding it.

Start with the conclusion and cast around for evidence to support it, no matter how flimsy. If it supports the conclusion it must be right; if it contradicts it, it must be wrong. And anyone who tries to explain differently doesn't understand the science.

For example, and this one was selected almost randomly from the daily displays on Facebook pages, the creationist, who turned out to be a white supremacist racist too, who quotes a single line from one edition of Darwin's Origin of Species and waves it as proof that Darwin inadvertently gave away the 'fact' that he didn't believe in evolution and was a secret creationist. For him, this destroys the theory of evolution so entirely that his favourite authority on creationism when he needs to appeal to one is Charles Darwin himself. Let's look at what Darwin actually said (I can't find the exact quote in my Kindle copy of the first edition but maybe it was in a later one, although we can't rule out the possibility of the quote simply being made up. I've highlighted the nearest thing I can find to it below.)


...It is scarcely possible to avoid comparing the eye to a telescope. We know that this instrument has been perfected by the long-continued efforts of the highest human intellects; and we naturally infer that the eye has been formed by a somewhat analogous process. But may not this inference be presumptuous? Have we any right to assume that the Creator works by intellectual powers like those of man? If we must compare the eye to an optical instrument, we ought in imagination to take a thick layer of transparent tissue, with a nerve sensitive to light beneath, and then suppose every part of this layer to be continually changing slowly in density, so as to separate into layers of different densities and thicknesses, placed at different distances from each other, and with the surfaces of each layer slowly changing in form. Further we must suppose that there is a power always intently watching each slight accidental alteration in the transparent layers; and carefully selecting each alteration which, under varied circumstances, may in any way, or in any degree, tend to produce a distincter image. We must suppose each new state of the instrument to be multiplied by the million; and each to be preserved till a better be produced, and then the old ones to be destroyed. In living bodies, variation will cause the slight alterations, generation will multiply them almost infinitely, and natural selection will pick out with unerring skill each improvement. Let this process go on for millions on millions of years; and during each year on millions of individuals of many kinds; and may we not believe that a living optical instrument might thus be formed as superior to one of glass, as the works of the Creator are to those of man? [My emphasis]

If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed, which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down. But I can find out no such case. No doubt many organs exist of which we do not know the transitional grades, more especially if we look to much-isolated species, round which, according to my theory, there has been much extinction. Or again, if we look to an organ common to all the members of a large class, for in this latter case the organ must have been first formed at an extremely remote period, since which all the many members of the class have been developed; and in order to discover the early transitional grades through which the organ has passed, we should have to look to very ancient ancestral forms, long since become extinct.

We should be extremely cautious in concluding that an organ could not have been formed by transitional gradations of some kind. Numerous cases could be given amongst the lower animals of the same organ performing at the same time wholly distinct functions; thus the alimentary canal respires, digests, and excretes in the larva of the dragon-fly and in the fish Cobites. In the Hydra, the animal may be turned inside out, and the exterior surface will then digest and the stomach respire. In such cases natural selection might easily specialise, if any advantage were thus gained, a part or organ, which had performed two functions, for one function alone, and thus wholly change its nature by insensible steps. Two distinct organs sometimes perform simultaneously the same function in the same individual; to give one instance, there are fish with gills or branchiae that breathe the air dissolved in the water, at the same time that they breathe free air in their swimbladders, this latter organ having a ductus pneumaticus for its supply, and being divided by highly vascular partitions. In these cases, one of the two organs might with ease be modified and perfected so as to perform all the work by itself, being aided during the process of modification by the other organ; and then this other organ might be modified for some other and quite distinct purpose, or be quite obliterated.

...Although in many cases it is most difficult to conjecture by what transitions an organ could have arrived at its present state; yet, considering that the proportion of living and known forms to the extinct and unknown is very small, I have been astonished how rarely an organ can be named, towards which no transitional grade is known to lead. The truth of this remark is indeed shown by that old canon in natural history of "Natura non facit saltum." We meet with this admission in the writings of almost every experienced naturalist; or, as Milne Edwards has well expressed it, nature is prodigal in variety, but niggard in innovation. Why, on the theory of Creation, should this be so? Why should all the parts and organs of many independent beings, each supposed to have been separately created for its proper place in nature, be so invariably linked together by graduated steps? Why should not Nature have taken a leap from structure to structure? On the theory of natural selection, we can clearly understand why she should not; for natural selection can act only by taking advantage of slight successive variations; she can never take a leap, but must advance by the shortest and slowest steps.

Darwin, Charles. On the Origin of Species By Means of Natural Selection, or, the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life
(pp. 101-104). 1st October 1859 - Public Domain Books. Kindle Edition.

Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.

Charles Darwin
No objective reader could seriously conclude that Darwin had somehow accidentally let slip the fact that he was a creationist who didn't really believe in evolution from reading that, yet that single quote taken out of context provides all the evidence our creationist and racist friend requires as proof that Darwinian Evolution is false and that even Darwin was a creationist. And with it comes that warm smug feeling of superiority of 'knowing' something about Darwin that all the scientists have missed or ignored. The blinkers must be extremely thick to avoid noticing that the quote was taken from a chapter which specifically, and with characteristic honesty which is rarely if ever seen in creationism, Darwin not only admits to the perceived difficulties with his theory but systematically dismantles and dismisses them, showing them to be the product of ignorant minds and muddled thinking. He does this not with the dismissive wave of a hand so typical of creationism but with reasons, evidence and logical argument.

Our creationist friend also fails to notice (or at least pretends not to have noticed) that over his lifetime Darwin moved very considerably away from an initially Christian view of the world where a creator was not in doubt and the theory of evolution might be seen as a description of the means by which it had created diversity, to one of agnostic atheism or at best deism and certainly a rejection of the Christian theology he had initially trained in as a young man and supporter of William Paley's 'watchmaker' analogy. That all counts for nothing of course. The only thing that matters is a single line lifted out of context and written with no possible idea that it might later be quote-mined by creationists with a political agenda, and given the required spin.

It supports the desired conclusion so it must mean what our creationist friend requires it to mean; the rest can be dismissed or ignored as unimportant because it doesn't.

If you can afford the loss of brain cells and a few IQ points, watch this recording of an interview between Richard Dawkins and Wendy Wright, a leading American conservative Christian activist. Look especially at how she uses obscure and refuted arguments, outdated science and blatant falsehood as 'evidence' for creationism whilst waving aside the real and tangible evidence and factual arguments as wrong or simply not there, and all delivered with an air of smugly condescending self-satisfaction. The 'evidence' she needs to support her conclusion is irrefutable to her mind, whilst anything which contradicts if can be dismissed because it doesn't support Wendy Wright, so it must be wrong or unimportant. She has no science qualifications whatsoever and clearly doesn't understand the subject nor has she made any effort to and simply refuses to go and look at the evidence she implies would change her mind, but she feels fully qualified to tell a leading biologist and acknowledged authority on the subject that he has it all wrong.

It is tempting to assume that this epistemological fallacy is confined to the fundamentalists and extremists. After all, surely it takes a real loon to be that arrogant in the face of such wilful ignorance doesn't it? But when you examine their arguments closely, you find it's not just the fundamentalists and extremists who rationalise their 'conclusions' this way. All faith is evidence-free, so all faith claims start from the conclusion and work backwards simply because there is no evidence to work forwards from. If there was, faith would not be needed. Often, the only difference between a fundamentalist and a 'moderate' is that the moderates are more selective in the evidence they cherry-pick and especially the quotes they cherry-pick from the Bible or Qur'an. Of course the quotes support the required moderate conclusion because no one would think God or Allah would really intend us to oppress women or kill unbelievers or kill ourselves in suicide attacks for him, so those verses in the holy book which say otherwise must mean something else or are 'out of context'. God is clever that way and put lots of things in the holy books which don't mean what they seem to say just to test us.

And of course, the whole Old Testament can be dismissed because obviously God, whose word endureth for ever and who never makes mistakes, changed his mind about all that genocide, stoning rape victims, selling daughters, not eating shellfish and stuff and sent Jesus to tell us. But the original sin has to stay or there wouldn't be any need for Jesus. Oh! And that thing about homosexuals... and the Ten Commandments... well, some of them... and Satan, obviously.

Muslims have an even better ploy for explaining away the contradictions and inconsistencies in the Qur'an. The great thing about this ploy is that it even seems logical - until you start claiming Allah is infallible. The trick is to say that the truth was revealed gradually to Muhammad so only the later contradiction counts. Phew! Unless you need the earlier contradiction of course and then you have to remember that Allah is infallible so the later one must mean something else. It doesn't support the required conclusion, so how could it be otherwise?

If one had sufficient evidence to warrant belief in a particular claim, then one wouldn’t believe the claim on the basis of faith . “Faith” is the word one uses when one does not have enough evidence to justify holding a belief, but when one just goes ahead and believes anyway.

Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 309-311).
Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.
And that's the great attraction of religion and 'faith'. You can believe what you want to believe, find a few scraps of 'evidence' to justify it, dismiss anything which is inconvenient to it, and you have a ready-made set of excuses for doing whatever you want to do. And a tolerant liberal society - the very thing you probably despise and will do away with as soon as you have the power you're entitled to - will defend your right to do it because it's your religion, and we all have to respect religion.

Underpinning all this is the assumption that faith is a valid alternative to evidence and even trumps it when it comes to determining truth. By faith alone you can determine the validity of science and dismiss entire bodies of it, can fill all the gaps in science - God did it! - and can determine who made the Universe and how he did it. And naturally he did it all for you. The unshakeable faith in faith itself.

Peter Boghossian argues that the strategy for deprogramming theists and helping them to free themselves from the delusion and phobias of religion is to undermine this belief in faith. So the question for Atheists is how do we go about undermining this undue confidence; this irrational faith in faith?

Doxastic openness, as I use the term, is a willingness and ability to revise beliefs. Doxastic openness occurs the moment one becomes aware of one’s ignorance; it is the instant one realizes one’s beliefs may not be true. Doxastic openness is the beginning of genuine humility...

Awareness of ignorance is by definition doxastic openness. Awareness of ignorance makes it possible to look at different alternatives, arguments, ways of viewing the world, and ideas, precisely because one understands that one does not know what one thought one previously knew. The tools and allies of faith — certainty, prejudice, pretending, confirmation bias, irrationality, and superstition — all come into question through the self-awareness of ignorance. In your work as a Street Epistemologist you'll literally talk people out of their faith. Your goal is to help them by engendering doxastic openness. Only very rarely will you help someone abandon their faith instantly. More commonly, by helping someone realize their own ignorance, you’ll sow seeds of doubt that will blossom into ever-expanding moments of doxastic openness.

Boghossian, Peter (2013-10-26). A Manual for Creating Atheists (Kindle Locations 840-857). Pitchstone Publishing. Kindle Edition.

So, keep sowing those seeds of doubt by exposing ignorance and causing 'doxastic openness'.

Isn't it sad to go to your grave without ever wondering why you were born? Who, with such a thought, would not spring from bed, eager to resume discovering the world and rejoicing to be part of it?

Richard Dawkins
But I think there needs to be something more. I think we need to create the conditions in which people want to be rid of their evidence-free superstitions and the fear which causes it to persist. I think we need to present an alternate view of reality. One that doesn't ascribe everything to a really clever magician so the awe and wonder is reserved for the the imaginary magician whilst everything else provides spurious 'confirmation' of its existence and cleverness and relegates everything to a mere utility value for us humans with little intrinsic worth in themselves. This view causes people to waste their one and only life trying to stay friends with this imaginary magician because their parents made them afraid of what it could do to us. It causes people to see life as a preparation for death and to spend it in a futile search for the kind of 'evidence' for it that we have seen above whilst carefully ignoring unwanted evidence and taking care not to learn and understand. It causes people to be satisfied with not knowing. And maybe worst of all, it causes them to inflict this culture of complacent ignorance on their children believing it to be a good thing.

We need to inspire awe and wonder in the Universe itself, and how everything about us is the product of natural forces of which we are an integral part, not something special and set aside and above it all. We need to inspire a wonder at the diversity and interconnectedness of all living things and how both our difference and our similarities are the result of the same natural process which makes us all unique and all the product of a process which is good at producing survivors of which we are, every individual of every species, the product of an unbroken line stretching back 3.5 billion years.

submit to reddit


  1. That comic strip was super, Rosa! Because of you I started this new sunny morning here in Sweden with a big smile on my lips.

    You are indeed a reliable bull's eye-hitter! Humorous, witty, and scholarly. It's easy to understand how and why all creationists must adore you like a goddess... ;o)

  2. Once again I am astounded by your obvious hard work. This blog is one of my greatest sources of education on matters of the highest importance. Humanity is littered with ludicrous suppositions based on faith and nothing more. Like a youth who is drawn to undesirable activities and becomes enraged when given alternative views based on experience of others. Peter Boghossian has produced a book which outlines a beautiful idea on how to help the delusional.


Obscene, threatening or obnoxious messages, preaching, abuse and spam will be removed, as will anything by known Internet trolls and stalkers or by known sock-puppet accounts.

A claim made without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Remember: your opinion is not an established fact unless corroborated.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...
Web Analytics