Sunday, April 05, 2015

Rules for making a valid argument

By Mathew Goldstein

The following five rules for making a valid argument are universally applicable.  I mention them here because they are too often not followed.*
  • We are restricted to following the evidence and going only where it takes us.  The only proper way to justify our conclusions about how the universe functions is overall best fit with all of the available evidence.  Empirical evidence comes first, conclusions follow.
  • We must accept our accumulated knowledge of the natural world. We are obligated to acknowledge the validity of scientific explanations because they are historically successful.  You don’t get to advance your hypothesis about how the universe works by throwing out accumulated human wisdom!
  • We must accept that we don’t know anything about the nature of entities outside this universe. Deities and afterlives and the like are sometimes defined as existing outside human experience.  The proper adjective for imagined entities that have no basis in human experience is 'fictional'.
  • To determine how the universe functions we need to look beyond what is going on inside someone's head by citing information that is universally accessible.  Human psychology is notoriously unreliable as a source of knowledge. When someone announces that they have knowledge of the mind of god, citing their personal interpretation of their personal experience, they are discussing their psychology.  
  • We are obligated to define our factual assertions about how the universe functions clearly and unambiguously.  Karen Armstrong-style platitudes are empty noise. Insofar as “God is Love” says nothing discernible about how the universe functions it is literally a meaningless, throw-away phrase.

PZ Myers criticized Greta Christina for her recent article proposing 6 unlikely developments that could convince her to believe in God.  PZ Myers complained that Ebonmuse and Greta Christina are 'conceding too much' by engaging in 'what if' arguments to demonstrate the application of the first criteria for valid argument from the above list. PZ claims that the latter four criteria (his four criteria were defined somewhat differently, see his article are prerequisites that theists can’t meet and therefore discussion should end there. I disagree. While it is arguably true that theists always fail to simultaneously meet all four of the other criteria simultaneously, those four criteria are corollaries of the first criteria. The insistence on starting with, and being dependent upon, empirical evidence is not secondary to the other criteria. Providing examples of how to apply the first criteria concedes only the supremacy of empirical evidence and is not rendered irrelevant or useless because theists fail to simultaneously meet all of the other four criteria.

* This list of debate rules was inspired by a recent public disagreement between bloggers Greta Christina and PZ Myers and borrows from what they wrote.

No comments: