Where does this dialogue go wrong?

November 22, 2011

Duncan at Alethian Worldview wrote an article about why there is nothing that could convince him (short of God miraculously appearing to him) to believe in God. Read the whole thing here. He compares belief to God to belief that the sun can set in the north. It’s clearly trying to liken Christian belief to the absurd.

However, there is a pretty basic flaw in the post: The sun can and does set in the north in certain parts of the world. If you are in Antartica in the autumn, you will see the sun set in the north. It is a surprising fact, but it is however true: If you were to stand on the South pole, every direction is North. The sun will only rise and sets there once a year, and this year it set on March 23 at 2.50pm. It only happens once a year, but it does happen!

It’s interesting to think that you can see the sun rise and set in any compass direction you like. If you stand on the South pole and take one step backwards, and the sun set is now directly to your South. If you step right, it is now to the West. If you step left, the sunset is to the East!

After this the the script is a little ironic:

“What are you looking for? What would it take to convince you that God was real?”

“I dunno. What would it take to convince you that the sun sets in the north?”

“The sun sets in the west.”

“So your mind is made up? There’s nothing I could say that would convince you that it sets in the north?”

“Of course not.”

“Suppose I told you a really convincing story about the sun setting in the north?”

“It wouldn’t be a true story.”

“How do you know?”

“Because the sun sets in the west.”

“If God actually showed up in real life, that would be a much more astonishing event than the sun setting in the north. And if He loves me enough to die for me, then He ought to be willing and able to show up in the real world where I can see Him. Unless and until He starts behaving like a real, loving God, I have no reason to believe He exists.”

“The thing is, though, He actually did show up in real life.”

“So men say. I’ve heard that story too, and I know that a lot of people think it’s a convincing story. But like you said, he sun sets in the west, not in the north. No matter how convincing the story is, if we don’t see it happening in real life, it’s not a true story. …”

But this is just a simple slip up. A mistake. Of course if we go to Duncan and tell him that he’s made a simple error, he’ll listen to us, right? Wrong. The whole point of the story is that there is no evidence that could convince him he’s wrong. Even there are people who have been to Antartica and seen the sun setting in the north, he will tell us that they must be lying. The whole point of the dialogue is because Duncan is trying to convince us that his way of weighing the evidence is the right way to do it. In reality all he demonstrates is that his method can lead him to reject the truth.

Croquet at South Pole, April 2005

So where did Duncan’s argument go wrong? Duncan’s polemic actually illustrates some of the frustrations I have talking with atheists.

Circular Argument

When you realize the sun actually does set in the north sometimes, the dialogue illustrates the exact opposite to what is intended:

“Suppose I told you a really convincing story about the sun setting in the north?”

“It wouldn’t be a true story.”

“How do you know?”

“Because the sun always sets in the west.”

In fact Duncan is just offering a circular argument. He’s wrongly convinced the sun never sets in the north. But instead of listen to reason or anything evidence which might cause him to rethink, he even rejects the evidence which contradicts his point of view. Even if people have been to Antartica (or the Artic) and seen it for themselves he won’t listen. Consider a similar conversation about Jesus,

“Suppose I gave you the historical evidence about Jesus?”

“It wouldn’t be a true.”

“How do you know?”

“Because God can’t show up on earth or I would have seen him.”

Both conversations are flawed for exactly the same reason.

Rejection of alternative explanations

There’s more than one explanation for the sun setting where it does.

(1) The sun always sets in the West or

(2) The Earth is spinning on its a tilted axis, as it orbits the sun.

Both explanations fit with what TW has seen. So why does TW only consider (1)? My guess is that he didn’t really give it a lot of thought before writing the article and made a simple slip up. Every time he sees the sun set in the west, he considers that (1) is a little bit more likely, and every other explanation less likely – so much so that presumably he thinks anyone is stupid who disagrees.

But it is worth thinking about: there’s several different explanations compatible with the evidence. Each time he sees the sun set in the west, we should consider not only (1) more likely, but every theory which is compatible with the evidence more likely (and every theory not compatible with it less likely).

This, again, has an analogue in atheist-Christian discussions. Many atheists regard "science works" as some sort of point in favour of atheism. But of course, Christians too expect that science should work. If you look through the history of science you’ll find countless Christians who do that- to the point where (in Europe at least) it was Christians who set up the observatories and universities. From a Christian point of view, the success of science is rationally justified: there is a logical and consistent God who is the creator and sustainer of the universe, and so there’s good reason to expect that we should find ordered laws in the universe.

Flawed Analogy

The last reason why I find his point of view unconvincing, is nothing to do with the fact his reasoning leads to false conclusions. It is that the analogy between the sun setting in the west and atheism just doesn’t exist. If I ask atheists for positive evidence which suggests God doesn’t exist, they normally tell me that atheism doesn’t need to provide evidence. So whereas Duncan’s suggesting there’s countless observations which suggest the sun always sets in the west there aren’t the same countless observations which suggest that there is no God. The reason for being able to reject views which are contradictory to the sun setting is that there’s overwhelming positive experimental evidence in favour of the proposition. There just isn’t the same evidence in favour of atheism. And so the whole piece is based on a bad analogy.

Conclusion

Duncan’s reasoning has led him to reject things which are actually true. If his reasoning leads to the wrong conclusion about sunsets, isn’t it also possible that it has led him to the wrong conclusion about God?

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6 Responses to “Where does this dialogue go wrong?”

  1. Flyborg Says:

    If you’re trying to defend believing major assertions based on stories and anecdotes alone, you failed to give an example.

    How do you know that the sun can appear to set in the North from certain perspectives? It’s not just because of stories or anecdotes – there are stories and anecdotes for pretty much any claim anyone’s ever believed. No, it’s because it can be demonstrated, not just to any observer who wants to make the trek, but also with evidence, based on what we know about the rotation of the Earth. It can be demonstrated like the value of pi can be demonstrated. It can be demonstrated because you know where the sun actually sets from the perspective of the rest of the world, and based on this, can deduce what it would look like from a different perspective. The anecdotes may be what spur investigation, but they’re not what demonstrate it to anyone but the most gullible.

    (And if you want to claim that anecdotes are enough for you, then I’m sure you’ll agree that in Africa there are fire breathing dragons with the word “Allah” written on their foreheads that can kill you if you look at them. Plenty of anecdotes for that, just like your sun example. But there’s a difference, eh?)

    The same evidence is NOT there for the idea that the Earth is hollow, that fairies are responsible for morning dew, that fire breathing dragons live in Africa, or that Vishnu, Allah, Yahweh, or any other god exists. The type of evidence that one would reasonably expect for ANY of these claims is simply not there. Sure, there’s anecdotes and stories for ALL of them, but actual evidence for none of them. We see what we expect to see if they don’t exist (IE nothing), and thus the null hypothesis is justified until the observation changes from the current state of “nothing”.

    ~

    ..and if we’re talking about a god which desires us to be saved and is willing and able to let us know it exists as a prerequisite for this, then we should expect to see it with the same undeniable obviousness as the location of the setting of the sun. We only expect to NOT see it if it doesn’t exist. So unlike a vague or deistic god, the absence of evidence is truly evidence of absence for something like Yahweh. It simply doesn’t make sense that something like the Christian god Yahweh could exist while a majority of the world not even know it, thus not being able to either accept or reject his kind offer of scape-goat blood sacrifice of himself to himself to convince himself to save us from himself.

  2. Chucky Says:

    > If you’re trying to defend believing major assertions based on stories and anecdotes alone, you failed to give an example.

    I’m simply pointing out where Duncan’s reasoning/argument fails, and why. I think it’s interesting because a lot of atheists argue this way about God. But the argument cannot be correct, because in this case, it has lead to rejecting beliefs which are *actually* true.

    Correct me if I’m wrong: You say that arguments for the sun setting in the north are fundamentally different to belief in God. You’re saying we only have arguments based on historical evidence for God, but no rational justification for believing it apart from these?

    I just don’t think that’s true at all. There’s any number of arguments for God – for example the moral, ontological, or cosmological arguments, all the way to personal experience, or simply reasoning that theism makes most sense of the universe. Personally I think that having a wide variety of independent lines of reasoning (for both where the sun sets, and also for God) leading to the same conclusion is a point in favour of both.

    In your last paragraph you say the evidence should be more than it is. I don’t think that’s true at all. Have you ever read Pascal?

  3. Flyborg Says:

    > it has lead to rejecting beliefs which are *actually* true

    Nope. You presented actual evidence based on observation and logic. That’s how you know it’s true. If it was just anecdotes, it would be no different from the fire breathing African dragons.

    > “You’re saying we only have arguments based on historical evidence for God”

    No, I say there’s no evidence that indicates a god at all. There are arguments but they’re all fallacious and make major errors, sometimes at every step.

    The ontological argument in particular is one of the silliest arguments I’ve ever heard for anything, as it can be used to support the existence of anything by defining it into existence. The cosmological argument, even if it wasn’t wrong on every premise (as it is), the conclusion doesn’t even lead to a god. The moral argument is simply a series of unfounded assertions combined with word games (depending which version you’re talking about). And personal experience is by definition personal and thus can’t be evidence, and given the subjective nature of experience and how you interpret it, shouldn’t even be evidence for oneself. (especially considering all the personal experiences people have of different gods, different superstitions, aliens, etc)

    > “you say the evidence should be more than it is.”

    Depends which god. If the most important thing in the universe is dependent upon knowing a god exists, and this god wants to let us know it exists, and is able, we should know it exists. Heck, I know horses exist, and they don’t want me to know they exist, and they aren’t all powerful either. If a god wants to stay hidden, it would make sense that we don’t truly know it exists, and a minority currently has faith in 1,000 different versions of “the real god”. But this reality doesn’t fit a god like the Christian god Yahweh who apparently demands worship, and according to the stories, hangs around making his existence obvious, and telling us trivial things like how not to boil goats. (but refuses to clarify when life begins or any of the hundred other things Christians can’t agree on)

    > ever read Pascal?

    Not beyond a few short arguments. Something you recommend?

  4. Chucky Says:

    > Nope. You presented actual evidence based on observation and logic.

    Right, and in this respect both arguments for God’s existence and for the sun setting in the north are similar.

    > No, I say there’s no evidence that indicates a god at all.

    This claim seems very similar to Duncan’s in the sunset analogy. Could it be possible you’re doing exactly the same thing as Duncan is- ignoring the evidence which isn’t convenient for you?

    > The cosmological argument, even if it wasn’t wrong on every premise (as it is)…

    Of course you can reject the premises of any argument, including for sunsets. But imagine, just for a second, someone did reject the argument for sunsets in the north. Imagine you did a beautiful job of explaining how the earth orbits the sun, how the earth rotates how sunsets work and all sorts of astromonical goodness. But the person you’re talking to simply rejects the model because they reject causality and nothing can convince them otherwise. Seriously, what would you think of someone who did that? What would you say to them?

    Similarly people can declare all you like that there’s nothing
    objectively wrong with Auschwitz or Buchenwald, or that your own actions might be subject to an objective moral standard. Sure it gets out of having to seriously consider that God might exist, so celebrate that. But it comes at a real personal cost. You might deny that our experiences are veridical, and it seems like you deny that explaining a large number of independent things makes something more likely to be true. But again, there’s a cost… if you think about it too deeply (at least in my experience) this line of denial ends in nihilism. It’s a scary place to be.

    Obviously nothing I can say will convince you, because you hold
    atheism very strongly. But every time you deny an argument you have to accept the logical consequences. In my experience, after a while, the logical consequences start grating with reality, and you start to think “Hey, why am I rejecting causality again?” Speaking from personal experience, it doesn’t take many areas before you start considering that maybe, just maybe, the sun really can set in the north.

    > Not beyond a few short arguments. Something you recommend?

    Yes. I was thinking of his Pensees. Pascal describes God as “hidden”, and I thought you’d be interested in that. There’s a copy online here:

    http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pascal/blaise/p27pe/

  5. Flyborg Says:

    (apologies if this is long)

    > and in this respect both arguments for God’s existence and for the sun setting in the north are similar.

    If they are similar, then stories and anecdotes are irrelevant, and the lack of believing stories does NOT lead to rejecting something actually true, since there’s actual evidence for both claims, as you say there is.

    > Seriously, what would you think of someone who [denied causality]? What would you say to them?

    I don’t think there’s anything that could be said to such a person, other than point out the contradiction in their everyday life, since in order to live and eat and avoid wandering into traffic, you must accept causality. This is the same for when I hear Christians argue against reason itself, or the need for evidence; if it’s their true position, they’ve simply removed themselves from the conversation.

    > it gets out of having to seriously consider that God might exist, so celebrate that

    This doesn’t make sense. The fact that I believe morality to be a system and not a set of rules does not “get me out of” having to consider whether a god might exist, nor would that be something to celebrate.

    > ..deny that explaining a large number of independent things makes something more likely to be true

    No I don’t. If something actually explains many observations and especially if it makes accurate predictions about future observations (IE gravity, heliocentric theory, evolution, science in general), it’s more likely to be true, and it’s at least useful. I simply don’t think that a god truly explains anything. For example saying “Zeus made lighting” doesn’t explain lighting – it’s a placeholder non-answer. Gods are a panacea answer that pretends to explain everything, just like “a wizard did it”, but like most answers to everything, actually explains nothing.

    > ..ends in nihilism..

    Nihilism is the silly and useless idea that life is objectively meaningless because there’s no outside objective meaning. That’s like saying food tastes objectively bad because there’s no outside objective standard of what tastes good. I can’t stop caring about freedom, truth, justice, and everything else I care about simply because I don’t think someone has declared that my life has a specific purpose.

    > nothing I can say will convince you

    If any god existed as the sun exists, I guarantee you could say something to convince me. The only reason you’d be unable to is if Yawheh had the same evidential support as Zeus. Heck I used to believe in ghosts and alien abductions (embarrassingly enough), so at least I know my mind can be changed.

    > ..you hold atheism very strongly

    Only in the sense that I hold “not believing in alien abductions” strongly, in that I’m unconvinced the claims are true, and I think there’s pretty good reasons to think it’s human fiction.

    > every time you deny an argument you have to accept the logical consequences

    That’s true, but only if you’re truly “denying” an argument IE making excuses which pile up. But so far I’ve pretty much only heard Christians/Muslims/non-skeptics do this, IE denying the need for evidence or reason itself, or conspiracy theorists piling on the assumptions like a house of cards that keeps getting sillier. However you don’t have to make any assumptions to notice logical fallacies or other errors in reasoning.

    > you start to think “Hey, why am I rejecting causality again?”

    I don’t deny causality, reason, logic, the need for evidence, or any other stuff I frequently hear from Christians.

    > Pascal describes God as “hidden”

    A hidden god is an unknown god, and the only thing you could truly know is that anyone claiming to know about this god, doesn’t. (unless they outsmarted god)

    A hidden god is also very much unlike the location of the setting of the sun, or unlike the Biblical God who hangs out to tell people trivial things or shoot fireballs at cities, and wants us to know he exists as a prerequisite of accepting his offer of salvation by vicarious redemption through a scapegoat blood sacrifice.
    (but I’ll check it out, thanks for the link)

  6. Bubba Ray Says:

    Hi Guys,

    Great discussion from you both.

    – Even there are people who have been to Antarctica and seen the sun setting in the north, he will tell us that they must be lying —

    Well for a start there would have to be a meteorological or similar website / service that you could refer Duncan to. Or you could offer to fly Duncan to the pole yourself so he could see it first hand or as it’s the 21st century how hard would video evidence be? Or we could use a polygraph on the witnesses, even if they are all lying what are the odds that they all could beat the machine ?

    To prove your sunset premise then we could find some reliable, verifiable, testable kinda evidence.

    The kind of evidence that God just doesn’t have.

    IF you didn’t have eye-witnesses, or video, or experts able to say that the claims are credible BUT you had some second or third hand accounts from people you’ve never met who were long dead by the time you told their story then you’d expect people to be skeptical of the story.

    Which is the kind of evidence that God has in abundance.

    Lastly:

    “I promise, the next time I’m arguing apologetics while standing at the exact south pole, I’ll say “sets in the east” instead of “sets in the north.”
    Deacon Duncan


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