Archive for the “Fuzzy Thinking” Category

Examples of fuzzy thinking, illogic, absurdity, etc.

Among the litany of stories on Senator Obama’s faith, I saw an interesting little tidbit in Newsweek, which no doubt many will see, but few will realize how wrong it is:

Obama calls his mother “an agnostic.” “I think she believed in a higher power,” he says. “She believed in the fundamental order and goodness of the universe. She would have been very comfortable with Einstein’s idea that God doesn’t play dice. But I think she was very suspicious of the notion that one particular organized religion offered one truth.”

Obama seems to think that “agnostic” means “lukewarm believer,” however that’s not what it means at all. Someone who truly “believes in a higher power” cannot be an agnostic. An agnostic takes the position that the existence of a deity cannot be known. Such a person cannot “believe” in a deity (or “higher power” or whatever euphemism one may apply).

Obama also misuses Einstein’s comment about dice and the universe, which was not an admission by Einstein of religious belief, but rather a disparagement of quantum mechanics — an area of science he later would accept, if grudgingly, meaning that he eventually changed his mind on the matter.

Lastly Obama refers to “organized religion,” as though his mother’s objection had been merely to “organized religion” rather than “religion” generally. This does not, however, make her an agnostic or any other kind of non-believer. It just means she was a believer in non-organized religion. Creating a distinction between “organized religion” and other things (such as “spirituality”) is common, often used to separate the objectionable aspects of religion from more acceptable parts. Unfortunately, such a distinction does not actually exist. Religion can be organized or not. All “spirituality,” or whatever alternative term one uses, is still “religion.” There is no difference!

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This post isn’t about religion or atheism. It is, however, about the twisted thinking that many people engage in. Illogic in the U.S. is so pervasive and insidious, that you can find it in even the most innocuous “celebrity news” items. Since this is such a brilliant example of the phenomenon, I thought it worth remarking on. Hopefully you will be able to use this example to see other kinds of illogic in other places.

Perhaps Jerry Lewis was on his way to Dennis Farina’s house.

The original Nutty Professor was briefly detained Friday at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport after trying to board a flight to Detroit with an unloaded gun in his carry-on luggage.

Police confiscated the .22-caliber Beretta, and Lewis was cited for carrying a concealed weapon without a permit. …

[A]ccording to his manager, the so-called weapon was actually a hollowed-out prop gun that wasn’t capable of firing.

Las Vegas Metropolitan Police spokesman Officer Bill Cassell said, however, if it had really been a shell of a gun, “it wouldn’t be a weapon, and we couldn’t cite him for carrying a weapon.”

There, did you catch it? The illogic here comes in the form of circular reasoning and is in the police spokesman’s comment. He’s denying the gun could have been a non-functional prop, since if it had been one, it wouldn’t have been an actionable offense; since action had been taken, we know it cannot have been a prop gun.

Casell’s comment is so stunningly asinine that I find it difficult to believe a professional spokesman said it — but there it is, a shining example of brazen illogic and fallacy.

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The shooting that took place yesterday in a Knoxville, TN church is, by now, well known. Initially folks of the Rightward persuasion declared it must have been a “hate crime” against Christians by a raging atheist. Unfortunately that turns out not to have been true. Here are the facts which weigh against this belief:

  1. The shooting took place in a Unitarian-Universalist church. The UUC is not exactly a Christian church, however; it embraces multiple doctrines (that’s what the “Universalist” in its name means — it views spiritual truths as being universal to all religions). It’s likely many Christians were there, but chances are, not all were. If Jim Adkisson, the shooter, were trying to gun down Christians, he picked the wrong place to do it.

  2. He wrote a letter explicitly stating who his targets were, and they were not “Christians” — he was targeting, instead, “gays” and “liberal views,” blaming them for things which had gone wrong in his life. While some Christians are politically liberal and some denominations accept gays, not all do, and in fact, most denominations decry both gays and political liberalism.

  3. That he chose a UU church shows that he was, in fact, more interested in targeting gays and liberals, since the UU as an organization tends to be much more politically liberal than Christian denominations, and accepts gays as members. Had he gone to — say — a Baptist church, it would have been very unlikely he’d have encountered any liberals or gays.

Early reports had pointed out that Adkisson complained about Christians, for instance railing against a woman who told him his daughter had attended a Bible college. This fits, of course, with most Christians’ inherent compulsion to feel persecuted, and the story was told according to this angle — until Adkisson’s letter surfaced, showing his motivation to be much more personal and not a philosophically-driven effort to wipe out Christians just because they’re Christians.

So it turns out this was not a “hate crime” against Christians … it was against people of two classes that Adkisson had a personal grudge against.

Folks on the Right were — and possibly still are — railing about this being a “hate crime” because largely they despise the very notion of “hate crime.” They fear that any crime by a Christian against, say, a gay person — regardless of whether or not religion or sexual orientation played a part in the particular event — would have “hate crime” charges tacked on for added measure. Some go further, claiming that all “hate crime” legislation is, by definition, an attempt to “silence” all Christians everywhere. This sort of paranoia is, of course, yet another example of the Christian Martyr Complex, which I already mentioned. While I consider “hate crime” laws to be dubious at best — after all, aren’t all violent crimes “hate” crimes? — this fear is completely irrational.

At any rate, hopefully the Right will stop claiming this crime is an anti-Christian massacre, because truthfully, it wasn’t — and they know it.

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On his trip to the Middle East, Barack Obama had the following to say about the modern state of Israel:

Barack Obama called Israel a “miracle” as he courted Jewish voters back home Wednesday …

Woops, looks as if the Senator and presidential candidate misspoke. The modern state of Israel is not a “miracle” if one defines that as an event of divine intervention. Far from it. It was founded by human beings who did human work. God had nothing to do with it.

If Israel is to survive — and if it is to reach some accord with Palestinian Arabs and bring peace to the Middle East — that will have been accomplished by (yep!) human beings, not by God.

Obama essentially is robbing human beings of credit for what they accomplished, by stating that their actions were not important, it was God alone who created Israel. Not only is this factually untrue, it’s obviously insulting to people who’ve given a great deal … in some cases up to and including their lives … for their state. At the very least he owes them an apology (which, I suspect, will never be offered).

It’s surprising to think that educated Americans in the 21st century (such as the Senator) still talk about “miracles,” especially given that — as David Hume logically demonstrated centuries ago — there can never be any such thing as a definite, certain “miracle.”

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In his defense of Christian exclusivity (i.e. that there is no salvation without Jesus Christ), Cal Thomas trots out an old apologists’ argument:

It finds most Americans believe there are many ways to salvation besides their own faith. Most disturbing of all is the majority of self-identified evangelical Christians who believe this.

Apparently they must think Jesus was a liar, or mistaken, when he said: “I am the way, the truth and the life; no man comes to the Father but by me.”

Thomas implies here that it’s scandalous that anyone might think Jesus could have lied … so — since we know this accusation is such an outrage that it cannot possibly be true — then of course he is the only way.

Unfortunately Thomas forgets a few things:

  1. Do we even know there was a Jesus who said such a thing? (As it turns out, Cal, Jesus’ existence is not the least bit certain).

  2. Even if Jesus did exist, do we know he said such a thing? (No, Cal, we only have this from the evangelists, who wrote decades afterward … not the most reliable accounts.)

  3. Third, if Jesus lived and if he actually said them … ? Yes, Cal, he may actually have lied.

You read that right. I did, indeed, dare say it: Jesus may have been a liar. But that assumes he lived, which is not certain, and that he said this, which in turn is even more uncertain.

It’s time people stopped letting their assumptions and their outrage guide them.

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The Hartford Courant ran a story recently on a restaurant not far from where I live. The building dates back to Revolutionary times (1780, I believe). For years I’ve heard stories about it being haunted. But now the Courant proudly declares — get this! — that the building is known to be haunted (cached version):

The ghost of Abigail Pettibone is known to haunt the upstairs of the locally famous Pettibone’s Tavern, which dates from the 18th century.

As I said, I’ve heard stories all my life, about that place. Rumors that the building was haunted. Tales about the ghost that lurks there. Assumptions about why she lingers there. And so on.

But until I read this, I had not realized that it was known to have been haunted. As in, certain that it’s haunted, or proven to be haunted.

This is interesting. I must have missed something, because a demonstrable haunting would have made the news — and much further away than just my part of Connecticut.

Sorry, but the reporter is incorrect. The haunting of Pettibone’s Taven is not “known.” It may be “assumed” to be haunted, or “claimed” to be haunted … but it is most certainly not “known” to be haunted.

If it were, I’d say someone ought to apply to the James Randi Paranormal Challenge and make a cool million bucks before the prize runs out next year!

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These days, in the US and the rest of the occidental world, it’s not uncommon to think of religion as promoting peace. The Quakers, for example, were pacifists; many Abolitionists were strongly religious; and more recently the most prominent leader of the civil-rights movement, Martin Luther King Jr, was a pastor who promoted non-violent resistance to racism. A column in today’s USA Today follows this reasoning, and claims that religion can stop wars:

Faith is sometimes the fuel that feeds conflict and spreads strife. History is a witness to this. But lest we forget, believers also can be the salve to bring people and religions back together. …

Religion — a solution to the problem of religiously motivated conflict and violence? Yes, actually. Because in their best traditions, the world’s two dominant faiths do promote peace, both through their central teachings and the lessons-by-example taught every day by innumerable Muslims and Christians who take their scriptures seriously.

The author cites examples of this phenomenon in, for example, some recent defections from al-Qaeda, and the request for “understanding” by Christians, offered by some 138 Muslim scholars, a little over a year and a half ago.

I hate to say it but these are fairly meager examples, given the much-larger scale of religiously-fueled violence that has taken place — and which is currently taking place (as in the Palestinian conflict, among others).

And to be honest, many of the positive religiously-inspired movements I mentioned already (e.g. abolition, and civil rights) had strong secular components that went along for the ride; among abolitionists were many northern capitalists who hoped to gain from the decline of the southern economy if slavery ended, and the civil rights movement of the 60s was not made up solely of religious people, but was aided by secular organizations as well, such as the ACLU. While both of these had strong religious components, they were not solely religious movements.

Articles like this one tend to gloss over the damage that religion has done, and amount to an attempt to whitewash the harm that centuries of religious-inspired violence has done to humanity. It serves no one to minimize the horrors of religion, precisely because, without keeping this in mind, it’s far too easy for it to happen again. It likewise does little good to cite a couple weak examples of religion fostering peace, and assume that religion automatically will do so again. It won’t — and in fact, it can’t, unless people make it happen.

Another way of putting it is: Religion cannot and will not save humanity; only humanity can save itself. We will either choose to live with one another, or we won’t. Religion will not make that happen, all by itself. It will take societal maturity, willpower, patience, determination, and tolerance. None of these can be forced on people from pulpits or by reading sacred texts.

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