Arguing with …. Anyone.

(This is an ancient draft post from a year or two ago. Just decided to post it so I can link to the “rules of argumentation” resource it contains in another post on this subject about argumentation generally – NOT specifically related to the interminable God vs Science debate.)

I’m an atheist. That is I don’t “believe in” a god or gods, any being(s) with omnipotent omniscience, indeed as any kind of causal explanation for anything happening in the (real) world, ever.

Despite a large degree of inconsistency in any such body of (written) thought, I actually don’t have much problem with particular “believers” in the teachings of prophets, the word, the way, of Christians or Mohamedans (or Zoroastrians or Zen Taoists, or Mahayanan Buddhists, whatever), as exemplary moral rules for human life in the world, even if their histories are 95% apocryphal purloined and interchangeable legend. So long as “rules are for the guidance of wise men and not the enslavement of fools”, and so long as much of the apparently literal are understood to be poetic and metaphorical, including short-hand references to god(s) to denote the ineffable, and inexplicable in the current / relevant context. Even rules that are wrong – not right or true – in any absolute objective sense, have some value for obedience in a given social-anthropological situation. The slippery slope is to let the metaphors die and reify, and mistake the ineffable for the objective and causal, the ineffable or pragmatic for some absolute truth with a capital T.

That is I’m a “rational” being. But, that said, I have complementary issues with those who claim scientific, objective rationality – that long pre-date any god vs science debates of the last 5 years or so. I’ve drafted one or two posts and comments into the PZ Myers “Pharyngula” debate, but never actually published, since the discussion threads are inevitably full of participants cock-sure of either side of the argument – eventually trading insults disguised as humorous rhetoric. (I have the same problem with much of Ben Goldacre’s “Bad Science” debates.)

In a sense I could be accused of taking a god of the gaps view, and religion as the opiate to avoid worrying about the mysteries of those gaps, those things that “science” has not yet explained, adequately for everyday use by mortals. In a sense I do have that view, but if I ever used the word god for such ineffability, it would always be (risky) metaphorical shorthand. The ineffability is never a causal objective “thing”. In a sense a Spinozan Pantheism, but again, we need to be very cautious about attributing any causal, purposeful teleology to such ineffable pantheism – nature as wonder.

Trouble is, with this “yes and no, sorta kinda, but …” view it is much easier to compare notes with a sophisticated theist or theologian than it is with a sophisticated scientist.

So imagine my delight at finding a rules of engagement flowchart from blogged by PZ on Pharyngula.

Trouble is 95% of the subsequent discussion thread is about rehearsed (anti-Creationist) arguments using the flowchart, rather than the content of the flowchart. The meta-argument is much more interesting.

So Yes / No Box #1 – Well, sorry, but “Yes” crassly oversimplifies the situation and “No” is the more sophisticated rational answer. I’m having this argument with you because I’m pretty sure of my position. This argument is going to cost us both time and effort, so we need to start on a basis of mutual trust. I’m looking forward to the discussion because I want to learn something that might help me understand the different positions better, mine and yours. How about you ?

Yes / No Box #2 – Hmm, Yes, OK, but this therefore all hinges on “faulty use” of the argument rather than any argument content per-se. I will certainly be OK to change my use of any such argument, if we can agree what this question really means.

Yes / No Box #3 – Well the $64,000 question is in here. What are the basic principles of reason ? You give examples. “More reasonable”, “more evidence” ? Is this about keeping score. The tyranny of the majority ? Who says the person asserting a position has the onus of justification ? And what is truth anyway ? What counts as reasonable, what counts as evidence ? Does one side of the argument have the privilege of defining these terms for the other ?

Rules 1, 2, 3 & 4 – OK, in general. Specifically 1 & 2 OK unless specifically indicating a dependency on another argument as part of the process. It may not be possible to agree on the first argument we hit upon, in isolation from any others. The world may not be as conveniently subdivided into subjects as our objective argument presumes. 3 & 4, well, OK, but … what counts as “evidence“. If we presume scientific standards of evidence, are we not presuming the scientific arguments for “truth” to be privileged to start with ?

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