Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Unanswerable Question

"Intellectual arrogance, in the utmost degree, is being displayed by those who dismiss out of hand the considerate opinion of someone who has studied a field for 25 years only because they cherish a particular religious worldview that has no independent foundation in reality." 
 -Massimo Pigliucci

For better or worse, I have had a fair amount of experience with internet debates. When I made my atheist video, I was inundated with hundreds (maybe thousands) of emails from people saying they loved it, hated it, and everything in between. For the people who didn’t like it, I often ended up in lengthy debates about all sorts of things pertaining to religion. One common debate was on evolution, and whether or not it was true.

Eventually, the torrent of emails slowed to a trickle, and it’s now been a few years since I have received anything. As such, my debates with creationists have pretty much stopped. I can’t say I'm disappointed, as repeating the same thing over and over again wasn’t super exciting.

In recent years, I have taken an interest in New Testament history, specifically regarding the study of the historical Jesus. Unfortunately, there are a group of atheists who don’t actually think Jesus existed. These “mythicists”, as they call themselves, are, in my opinion, an embarrassment to atheism. As such, I have also had my fair share of debating them. In a previous blog post, I explained why the existence of the historical Jesus is the best explanation of the data, but also how mythicists are very similar to creationists in regards to the logic of their arguments.

Through my debates with creationists and mythicists, there has emerged what I call “the unanswerable question.” It’s a question which NO creationist or mythicist has ever answered. Ever. I have asked probably hundreds of creationists, and a dozen or so mythicists this question, and no one has ever had the guts to answer it. I have even asked the same person this question numerous times, reminding them that they haven’t answered it yet. Despite my requests and reminders to have the question answered, NO ONE I have ever conversed with has done so. Even when I explain that no one has answered this question, it hasn’t helped to coax an answer out of anyone. I find this very amusing, but also extremely revealing.

Of course, by now, you are certainly thinking “well Zak, what's the question!?” And on the off chance that a creationist or mythicist is reading this, they surely are thinking “I’m not afraid of any question! I will answer it!” Well, maybe.

So here is the question. I will first pose it for the creationists, and then pose it for the mythicists…

Dear creationist,
What is more likely, that the thousands of biologists (who cover a wide spectrum of religious beliefs), who have dedicated their lives to studying evolution are wrong? Or that you, a person with zero education in biology (who has likely never even read a book on evolution), are wrong? More simply: is it more likely that you know and understand biology better than the people who have spent their lives studying it, or that you are in error?

Dear mythicist,
What is more likely, that the thousands of historians (who cover a wide spectrum of religious beliefs), who have dedicated their lives to studying ancient history are wrong? Or that you, a person with zero education in ancient history (who has likely never even read a book on the historical Jesus), are wrong? More simply: is it more likely that you know and understand ancient history better than people who have spent their lives studying it, or that you are in error?

There is always a lot of hemming and hawing from the target audience. A lot of excuses about how all biologists are atheists, or how all historians who study the Bible are Christians. In both cases, as I’ve indicated in the question, this is wrong.

It seems that when this question is presented, both groups of people, as arrogant as they may be, simply cannot deny the fact that of course it’s more likely that they are in error. However, people of such persuasions are generally so certain about their beliefs that admitting this fact, to them, is to admit that their beliefs are wrong. This is unacceptable, so they simply refuse to answer the question. The cognitive dissonance that would be caused by answering the question is too much, and must be avoided.

Of course, we don’t need to stop with creationists and mythicists. I would pose the same question to anyone who thinks GMOs or vaccines are bad for you, as well as people who think global warming is a myth. In both cases, like with evolution and the historical Jesus, the expert consensus is clear, unambiguous and overwhelming.

There are two additional “non-answers” I should also address. The first is an appeal to Galileo. The argument goes like this: “Galileo was said to be wrong by all the so-called experts, and he was right! So how dare you not take me seriously!” Sure, but you’re not Galileo. And anyone could say this about literally anything. “I don’t think Antarctica exists!! How dare you laugh at me! The so-called experts laughed at Galileo!” Carl Sagan puts this fallacy to rest quite nicely, stating “The fact that some geniuses were laughed at does not imply that all who are laughed at are geniuses. They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”

The second non-answer is to just deny the scientific consensus. I see this mostly with creationists and people who are anti GMOs. In both cases, these people mostly filter out every bit of dissenting opinions they come across, so it does seem like no one actually supports such things. When one refuses to listen to scientists, I can see how they might think that no scientist actually disagrees with them.

It's common for these these non-arguments and non-answers to be focused upon by the target audience, in an attempt to change the subject. This is generally extremely obvious, and I just continue to press the question. Eventually, the person just stops responding, with the question never having been answered.

So when dealing with certain questions in your own life, find out what the experts think. If you disagree with them, ask yourself “Is it more likely that I know something the experts don’t, or that I am wrong?” Of course, you might just be the next Darwin or Einstein, but especially if you have zero formal education on the subject… I doubt it.