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One Step at a Time

Entry 1131, on 2009-12-15 at 21:39:38 (Rating 3, Religion)

One of the reasons my debates with creationists are so frustrating is that they change the scope of the debate to suit their purposes. For example, I pointed out that one of my opponents was misrepresenting evolution when he asked why fish were still around since they were human's ancestor. I know this is a rhetorical device but its also totally wrong. He then went on to ask me to explain how something came from nothing. But the origin of the universe and abiogenesis really have nothing to do with evolution.

I suspect this is a mechanism creationists use to divert attention from the fact that their ignorance is about to be exposed. Its a form of the famous "Gish Gallop", a debating technique used by creationist Duane Gish who just changes the subject and throws random statements around at such a speed that they are impossible to answer even though they could easily be refuted if they were handled one at a time.

So I think a common standard needs to be established before individual points can be addressed. The basic points, that I think everyone should agree on, need to be considered one step at a time...

1. We want to know the truth. Most people will claim they do even if they don't. If the person doesn't want to know the truth then there's no point in going further. They have admitted they prefer to remain ignorant and, from my point of view, they have conceded the debate (and destroyed the credibility of their world view).

2. Some ways of establishing the truth are better than others. Relativists will deny there is a single truth and might claim that all "truths" exist in a cultural framework and should be treated as being equally valid. Anyone who is a true relativist really gives up all hope of discovering any useful information at all so they can also be abandoned. Creationists are never relativists anyway because they claim their own version of the truth is superior.

3. The best way to discover the truth is to use logic and experiment. This one is a bit harder to justify but I have two reasons why people should believe it. First, these techniques just make sense. There is a long history of logic which has never been seriously disputed so why reject it? And testing ideas is just common sense. You want to find out if something is true? Let's test it. The second reason for accepting this methodology is that it is the basic process of science and technology and it has given us all the practical benefits we have today: computers, medicine, etc.

If anyone rejects this methodology they need to offer an alternative. If they say we should accept knowledge because it is contained in an ancient book of wisdom (like the Bible) I would ask how do we decide which books contain real wisdom and which don't. Its an essentially arbitrary decision.

If they say we should accept a particular view because its followed by many people I would point out that that is also essentially arbitrary. Christianity might be the biggest religion now but it wasn't always. Does that mean that its only been true since it became dominant? And there are more people who reject it than accept it, even though they don't have a consistent belief system. How does that fit in with the majority view idea?

It seems to me that no other methodology offers the same combination of common sense logic and real world results as the scientific method of hypothesising and testing. If the person can accept this then we can move on but if they reject it then there's not a lot of hope. Some people cannot accept that repeatable, objective testing is a good way to reveal what is true and what isn't but I've never heard a good justification for why they think that way.

One possible objection is that there are aspects of the world which are "beyond" the scientific method. I would say that if these things exist they either have some influence on the world or they have none. If they have some influence (for example a god answering a prayer) then we can use science to test them by looking at that influence. If they don't then they essentially don't exist. Maybe a god exists but he never interacts with the world in any way. If that's true then he really doesn't exist and any debate around this god is useless.

4. If we can get to the point where logic and experiment are admitted as the best way to establish the truth then the next step is to ask what they show. One of the important aspects of science is repeatability. If one person claims to have done an experiment which shows some effect of god then that's fine but unless it can be repeated with similar results we would be justified in suggesting the effect could be experimental error, bias, or a statistical anomaly.

As far as I am aware there has never been an experiment, which other experts can repeat, showing that any sort of supernatural phenomenon exists. Quoting anecdotes is useless because we can support anything through anecdotes. Quoting individual scientific studies is also useless because its possible to quote others showing the opposite effect. The research as a whole needs to be considered and that clearly shows no supernatural phenomena exist.

So to summarise all this we should all agree that we want to find the truth, that there is one objective truth, that using the scientific method is the best way to establish what it is, and that the evidence for the existence of the supernatural is inadequate to make it worth accepting. It seems straightforward to me but I'm sure the next time I debate a creationist I will find its far from it!

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