Observations and inanities by a second-shift assistant supervisor in the Puppy-Grinding division of the Evil Atheist Conspiracy® (our motto: "Sure it's cruel, but think of the jobs!"), your host, Brent Rasmussen.
The Importance of Facts
Many of the recent unconstructive debates UTI has had lately are due to a single problem, namely people debating without regard for evidence. The problem begins not so much when people play at rhetoric without taking themselves seriously as when they substitute witnessing, anecdotes, emotional appeals, and other logical fallacies for logic and evidence; thus we get substance-free, emotion-packed comments. Appeals to â€œfinding God in your heartâ€ are no substitute for providing evidence that a god exists.
Many false belief systems can use evidential arguments. Neo-conservatives have no problem with debating with facts; what they believe happens to be wrong, but they can at least bring some evidence why they are right. But other false views donâ€™tâ€”in fact, the most popular false views, including all religions, are nothing without emotional appeals and rhetorical tricks. And most importantly, the truth is evidential, which means that correct views can and so use evidence-based arguments.
Sometimes debating completely pragmatically is impossible. You can debate whether thereâ€™s evidence for fetal consciousness, or whether public health care works better than private health care, but debating whether protectionism is justified or what restrictions there should be on immigration is something else. Sometimes moral arguments are unavoidable, especially when the facts establish some conflict of interestsâ€”for example, if media violence doesnâ€™t cause crime then thereâ€™s no moral case against censoring it, but what if it does cause crime?
Still, even when you have to resort to moral arguments, there are reasonable ways to do itâ€”there are various moral philosophies one can use hereâ€”and unreasonable ways, such as unsubstantiated shrieks of â€œBut premarital sex is immoral!â€ Appeals to first principles are a bad way to go, mostly because about ninety-eight percent of the time, theyâ€™re not necessary. Appeals to the consequences are better, although at times they require careful judgment calls, as in the case of media violence. Appeals to universal morality, that is general principles of what is good for everyone, can work as well, although they usually donâ€™t tell you much. Appeals to shared assumptions, such as that minority rights are a good concept, are even better, although when there is no shared assumption they can degenerate to appeals to first principles.
On the other hand, emotional appeals are never justified and never constructive. Personal witnessing and preaching are pointless: â€œhave you looked for God in your heart?â€, â€œhave you ever tried to understand atheists?â€, and similar arguments prove nothing except that the speaker or writer is passionate about theism or atheism. Thereâ€™s an emotional argument for every view, and no good way of deciding which arguments work and which donâ€™t. With evidence, there are fairly objective standards that can tell us evolution is real, the Holocaust happened, communism doesnâ€™t work, etc.; with emotion, there arenâ€™t.
Similarly, quoting scripture wonâ€™t cut it, because scripture can prove anything. It doesnâ€™t matter whether the scripture in question is the Bible, the Qurâ€™an, the Vedas, the US Constitution, or Fahrenheit 9/11, all of which many people revere with religious fervor. I donâ€™t care that Thomas Jefferson believes something; if what he says is true, you should be able to give evidence that itâ€™s true. Donâ€™t be a know-nothing who uncritically appeals to what has always gone on or to what his favorite authority says; every utterly cranky cause has many smart, serious people rooting for it.
We will be spared a lot of completely useless debates if people just stop with the irrationality. The sum of arguments against giving equal rights to oppressed groups is, â€œBut I like oppressing blacks/gays/atheists,â€ which reflects the fact that opposing equal rights is utterly irrational. Of course, itâ€™s exactly for this reason that I expect opponents of equal rights to continue appealing to emotion and tradition (no, the current system of inequality doesnâ€™t work any more than slavery did). But other debates will finally become constructive; you can debate foreign policy or free trade or education or abortion without conjuring any of the standard canards.
Even when emotional appeals seem to work, itâ€™s not because they work but because theyâ€™re coincident with evidence. The heartbreaking testimony of a refugee concerning the slaughter thatâ€™s going on in her country carries a lot of emotional baggage, but also works as passion-free evidence that atrocities are going on, which implies that someone needs to take immediate action. Still, when the chips are down, the facts and the studies that determine them matter much more than personal testimonies.
If you fear that empiricism will lead people away from your view, maybe itâ€™s time to reexamine your view. Empirical debates depend heavily on the debating skill of the participants and on the facts they know about, but overall theyâ€™re much better at determining who is right than shrill appeals to the Founding Fathers, the Bible, and patriotism.