Logical Fallacies

There are a lot of logical fallacies that people commit on a fairly regular basis.  Look at any response thread on a news article or Youtube video, and you’ll see a cornucopia of faulty logic used to support claims.

As a computer programmer, I find that understanding logic is critical to my job, but I also find it useful to understand what logical fallacies are, because it’s very easy to invoke a logical fallacy to pull the wool over our eyes.  Further, it’s quite easy to commit a logical fallacy when you’re not a student of logic, and sometimes, even when you are.

I define a logical fallacy to be an argument that fails to create a sturdy bridge between claims and conclusions.  There are better definitions than that, but for my purposes, I find this definition to be abstract enough to cover most logical fallacies I see.

Deductive Errors
There are lots of ways to create a faulty bridge between claims and conclusions.  For example, consider the following:

1.  All Americans are blue
2.  John is an American
3.  Therefore, John is blue

The deductive logic in the above logical argument is perfectly good, but the bridge is still “broken” because #1 in the claim is factually inaccurate.

Inductive Errors
Here’s another logical error, this time, an inductive one:

1.  When I walked into Jack’s house, the living room had green carpet
2.  When I opened the closet, it also had green carpet
3.  Therefore, all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet

Where the first claim about blue Americans was a deductive error, the claim about Jack’s carpet is an inductive error.  There simply is not enough evidence to conclude that all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet.

Notice I’m not making any assertions about actual truth values within a claim.  It could very well be that John is blue or that all the rooms in Jack’s house have green carpet; however, support for the claims put forth in both of the above statements are not good enough to build a sturdy bridge between the evidence and the conclusion.  Therefore, the claim that John is blue, or that Jack’s house is full of green carpeted rooms is a matter of faith, not sound logic.

Multiple logical errors
Here’s another version of a common logical error:

1.  The sun rose today and yesterday
2.  Therefore, the sun will rise tomorrow

There are actually a couple errors the above claim commits.  The first is a factual error.  The sun didn’t rise.  The Earth spun in its orbital pattern, which made it appear that the sun rose.  But it didn’t rise.

The second error the argument commits is another inductive one, just like Jack’s green carpet.  There is indeed a possibility that what we call “the sun rising” will not occur tomorrow.  Again, Earth will almost certainly continue in its orbital pattern around the sun, and we will see the sun tomorrow; however, evidence of previous activity is not evidence for future activity, and this claim puts forward no compelling evidence regarding the Earth’s orbital pattern or other factors in the solar system.

Burden of Proof
Another common logic error is the matter of burden of proof, where the burden of proof is put on the wrong side of the equation, or where a claim is simply not justified with any meaningful evidence or logical consistency.  For instance, person A makes a claim that something exists without providing evidence:

John “Bigfoot is real.”
Jack: “What proof do you have?”
John: “No one has proven bigfoot is not real.  Let’s go squatching!”

In the above conversation, the burden of proof was indeed on John, mostly because he made the claim.  But consider an alternative to the above conversation:

Jack: “Bigfoot is a hoax, there’s just no way…”
John  “Bigfoot is real, dammit!”
Jack: “Show me a dead body, dwellings, DNA, and give me an evolutionary and migratory model”
John: “I don’t have to.  I saw one once on the side of the highway as I was driving.”

I think it’s reasonable to say that John still owns the burden of proof because Jack is asking for reasonable evidence that would provide compelling evidence that bigfoot exists.  In this case, Jack is helping to lead John to build a sound argument for his claim.  The only evidence John presents is his own eye-witness testimony, which Jack is right to be skeptical of – eyewitness testimony is often unreliable.

Straw Man
One of the most common logical fallacies I see is the Straw Man fallacy.  Straw man goes something like this:  Person A takes position X.  Person B says that Person A holds position Y.  Person B attacks position Y.  Here’s an example:

Jack:  “It’s not useful to make claims about bigfoot because there is no good physical evidence”
John:  “Why don’t you care about protecting animal habitats?  Bigfoots need a lot of habitat, as do other local animals, in order to survive.  Do you want all local animals to go extinct?”
Jack:  “WTF?”

John is trying to make the case that rejecting bigfoot gives one license to not care about other animals’ habitats, and that Jack’s disbelief in bigfoot is his method for disregarding overall habitat.  Of course, John’s claim is absurd.  Jack made no statement or implication about overall habitat.

Questionable Cause
Another common logical error is Questionable cause, or ignoring a common cause.  This happens when event A and event B often occur together.  The error comes when a person makes a claim that A causes B (or B causes A).  Correllation is not the same as causation.  Here’s an example:

John:  “Every time it snows, ice forms on the lake.”
Jack:  “Your point?”
John:  “Snow causes ice to form on the lake”.

Of course, we know this is an error; specifically, it ignores a common cause.  Temperature, along with dynamics in the atmosphere can effect ice formation and snow.

Begging The Question
Then there’s begging the question.  This is an error that is a result of circular reasoning, and specifically, is caused by making assumptions that are not well-supported.  For example:

John:  “I know bigfoot is real”
Jack:  “How?
John:  “The book written by Jane says so, and she’s the authority on Bigfoot”

In the above conversation, John assumes that Jane’s book is evidence enough to support the claim that bigfoot exists.  John also commits the error of appealing to authority, which is its own logical fallacy.

Appeal To Popularity
Ad Populum (Appeal to Popularity) is also very commonly committed.  In this logical error, evidence is put forward that a lot of people believe something, and therefore, that is evidence for the belief:

John:  “Do you realize how many people believe in bigfoot?  Look at all the TV shows and websites!”
Jack:  “I don’t know, John”
John:  “What is it going to take for you to believe the truth?!?”

There are a lot more logical fallacies, but these are the ones I see the most.  For more information on logical fallacies, see the below websites:

http://www.nizkor.org/features/fallacies/
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fallacies

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Why I’m Not A Christian

If religion were not such an irrational collection of mumbo-jumbo, I’d probably still be a practicing Christian. It is appealing, you’ve got to admit, especially when you’re only told about the good parts as a kid. Christianity and heaven are built into your psyche from a very young age, and those delusions remain there long after it occurs to you that the whole damned thing is a collection of fairy tales concocted by primitive, small, mean-spirited, vindictive, sociopathic, schizophrenic assholes who were so narcissistic and concerned with human control, that they invented a God whose vengeful attributes perfectly mirrored their own. These stories were invented long before human beings understood how the cell works, or that the Earth revolved around the sun, or that they were descendants of ape-like creatures who emerged out of Africa hundreds of thousands of years earlier. These authors continue to enjoy perpetual reverence well-beyond that which they deserve, and their hallucinations were leveraged by land-hungry kings, exploited by a power-hungry church, and maintained through the millenia by celibate monks who lacked the intellectual honesty to toss those immoral texts in the trash where they belonged.

If there was even a sliver of reasonability in Christianity’s claims, I probably wouldn’t have rejected it; however, once you start investigating its claims with a skeptical mind, it’s pretty hard to take any of it seriously; moreover, with an investigative mind, it gets easier to understand why human beings are so inclined to such imaginative non-sense when you consider their default conditions and state of ignorance. It’s a scary proposition that we’re alone and this life is the only reward we get; it’s much more comfortable to imagine that the unending pain, suffering, and loss we must endure during life will be rewarded with perpetual infantilization, where our only responsibility would be to praise the lord, which is something most early Christians did during their lives, anyway.  Religion was indeed the perfect coping mechanism for an earlier age of humans

Christianity continues to inflict harm – from its discouragement of condom use to its brutalization of homosexuals to its radical attempts in government intervention throughout the world, Christianity’s fairy tales are continuously invoked to rationalize the pain and suffering it is so eager to inflict in the name of Jesus Christ.  That’s why I’m not a Christian.

No Atheists In Foxholes?

There’s a saying that you don’t find any atheists in a foxhole.  I find statements like this glib because they attempt to do multiple things at once – this particular statement attempts to make a factual claim AND ridicule atheism as a pointless intellectual exercise that has no practical value…when the going gets tough, the tough find faith…or something along those lines.

I think it’s incorrect that atheists tend to reject their disbelief when they’re near death.  But even if it was the case that every single atheist renounced their skepticism on their death bed, it still proves nothing, except the fact that humans are weak, and need comfort and reassurance, regardless of the absurdity that comfort and reassurance entails.  Exploiting the death process to convert non-believers is a mean spirited thing to do, and it’s the height of dishonesty to claim proselytization by “converting” a person in that condition.

There is a reason why religion is pervasive, and exists independently across nearly all societies.  It gives people a sense of togetherness, belonging, and purpose in a cruel, unrewarding, and inhospitable world.  But there is a practical reason why religion must be taught to young children, as opposed to delaying introduction until young people can comprehend deductive logic.  Children are impressionable, and they internalize information their parents and elders tell them.  This internalization turns fairy tales into facts in childrens’ minds, and it’s precisely why the most zealous fundamentalists are so persistent in their rejection of facts and reason, and why there is such a doggedly anti-intellectual spirit across so many religious communities.

It’s a challenging exercise to let go of religion as an adult, especially when you internalized so many of religion’s teachings at a young and impressionable age.  This speaks to how difficult it is to truly change as a human being, which is why people will fight wars and kill others who would disrespect or disagree with their illogical beliefs.

So is it any wonder that some atheists renounce their disbelief at their moment of greatest pain and suffering?  I don’t think that proves anything except that brainwashing children is much more effective than anyone could have ever imagined.

Thoughts on Food for the Holidays

It’s my belief that sugar is the primary cause of health problems for Americans, followed by other, more complex carbohydrates, followed by abundance of Omega 6 fatty acids.  Everything else is either secondary, or unimportant in creating a model that describes the relationship between diet and health outcomes.

The thought goes that muscle (and other) cells in the body become resistant to insulin, because insulin always tends to deliver sugar.  Cells don’t want sugar, and therefore become resistant to insulin.  Have you taken a look at the number of foods that have sugar, even when you don’t expect it?  It’s like everything…

I don’t believe meats and other fatty foods are the cause of obesity in America; in fact, I think that in the absence of carbohydrates, it’s actually quite difficult to even gain weight, let alone become obese; the implication is that calories-in-calories-out as a model for weight change is complete garbage.

Gary Taubes describes this quite wonderfully in his books “Good Calories, Bad Calories” and “Why We Get Fat”, but the $0.05 version is that insulin (produced in excess when consuming sugar) causes the enzyme LPL to uptake fat into fat cells, and suppresses enzymes like HSL to break glycerol bonds in triglycerides that are stored in fat cells; therefore, fat goes into fat cells, and stays there.

When we drastically cut carbohydrates, the pancreas secretes less insulin, and allows us to metabolize fats (instead of sugar and glycogen).

So go ahead and eat that turkey and ham…but skip the potatoes and try not to overdo it on the dessert.

Santa Claus and God

Even as a teenager, it was easy for me to spot similarities between Santa Claus and God.  Both have supernatural attributes, both live in a grand, theme-park place, both practice an absolute form of justice, and both were invoked when I misbehaved.  Of course, as a teenager, I’d long-since put away the idea that a reindeer-wielding sleigh carrying an overweight, bearded fellow would deliver presents to billions of children over the course of a few hours; but at the time, one idea seemed more ludicrous to me than the other.There is a convenience factor that parents who invoke Santa Claus rely on:  it allows them to disown punishments they dole out.  In the case of the parent who tells their child that Santa will deliver coal if they continue their behavior, they don’t even have to take responsibility for their warning.

The trade-off for this invocation is that they don’t get credit for the presents on which they may have spent hundreds (or thousands!) of dollars.  I suppose that for parents using this carrot/stick approach, the benefit of behavioral control exceeds the cost of the delusions they impart to their child.

I think there are plenty of parallels one could draw in how Christianity has described heaven and hell, and what punishment and reward looks like.  Heaven is a grand place where all sins are forgiven and all doubts are washed away.  Pain doesn’t exist and logical dilemmas are replaced with absolute reverence to the bearded boss.  All one has to do to enter heaven is to give absolute reverence to the parent/church while they’re alive, give it a substantial chunk of their earnings, attempt to behave themselves, and apologize constantly.

The alternative to entering the North Pole…I mean heaven…is achieved by failing to practice the right blend of reverence to God and reverence to the Church…oh, and about 1000 other things, too, including choosing the wrong day to eat shellfish or mixing polyester and cotton.  There are lots of transgressions that will get you eternal coal…erm…damnation.

Using a proxy to extort control is a common theme in human behavior.  This was magnificently described by Orwell in 1984 with the Big Brother character, who was never actually revealed to exist, but who could convict based on thought crime and inclination to individualism.

Secular Morality

The presupposition for many Christians is that there can be no morality without God, and, like-it-or-not, God is the moral compass by which we navigate our lives, and he created the framework within which we exist.

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, I can’t prove this God character *didn’t* exist, but then again, there are a lot of things I can’t disprove, such as invisible garden gnomes or transparent fire-breathing dragons.  Luckily, I don’t believe it’s my burden to justify my disbelief in those fantasies.

I suppose the best we can do is to put forward the question:  can we define a moral code without invoking God, religion, or any of its byproducts?

There are a lot of people who are more articulate about this matter than I am (eg Matt Dillahunty, Daniel Fincke), but for me, I think that a moral way to live is to try to identify what is best for everyone, in terms of their physical and emotional well-being, and to do our best to maximize everyone’s well-being, while simultaneously minimizing harm.  Details for how to maximize benefit and minimize harm can be demonstrated via empirical evidence, buiding models, comparing inputs and outputs, and identifying best practices.

Of course, this framework creates dilemmas from time-to-time, but last time I checked, we live in a complicated world which is exacerbated by social relationships and competing interests, and this dilemma is not unique to the faith-less.  But the advantage this framework gives is that it has the capacity to identify a conflict of interest when it exists, and it does not create a hierarchy such that one party is always prone to benefit while others are always prone to being harmed, such as the case with various implementations of Christianity.

The other advantage of this agile implementation of morality is that it does not have a rigid ruleset.  It is self-correcting.  It does not presuppose that text in a particular document is an absolute standard for behavior, because behavior is relative to the time and situation.  It always has the capacity to improve or adjust in the event of moral or logical inconsistency.

The hazard of an implementation like this is that models are never perfect – their predictive capacity can diminish under certain circumstances.  For example, a society might conclude that what is most beneficial for the majority is that we should kill minority groups who some claim are detrimental to society.  If there are 95 in the majority, and 5 in the minority, it’s quite clear how to maximize benefit if the majority is convinced that the minority is harmful.  Indeed, various historical figures have successfully convinced the masses that some minority group (or even a majority group) is harmful to the overall well-being of society, and used that argument to justify mass killings.

I have a couple responses to this concern:

1.  It’s not like that claim is isolated to non-theistic societies.  There have been a lot of religious claims put forward over the past couple millenia to justify mass extermination.

2.  In an agile moral framework which forces people to consider well-being and harm for all competing interests, it would be quite difficult to gloss over harm caused by mass extermination, especially when there is no rigid text that condones this sort of thing.  The Christian bible, on the other hand, has several examples that justify mass extermination.  Rigid textual frameworks are the antithesis to secularism’s agility.

People can be duped, and people can be convinced that “the other” causes them harm, even if they’ve never even met “the other”.  This is a human failing, and it’s a theme across cultures, religions, and time.  Humans have a difficult time getting along, and religion often exacerbates this, as does resource scarcity and desire for power.

Secular morality is a better solution, because it doesn’t create a framework that give peoples license to claim themselves “chosen” or more innately good because of their birthplace, tribe, or family.

The Christian Bible and Morality

A person could go their whole life attending church and not come to the conclusion that the Christian bible is an immoral document.  One of the reasons for this is because church sermons tend to cherry pick passages that don’t appear immoral; the other reason is because sometimes it takes a bit of consideration to realize a passage is immoral.

For instance, in Deuteronomy 3, it’s pretty clear the following statement is immoral:  “So the LORD our God handed King Og and all his people over to us, and we killed them all.  We conquered all sixty of his towns, the entire Argob region in his kingdom of Bashan…We destroyed all the people in every town we conquered – men, women, and children alike.  But we kept all the livestock for ourselves and took plunder from all the towns”.

Some excerpts, such as from 1 Peter, may take a bit more consideration: “Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse”.  To a modern-day westerner, it probably doesn’t occur to them that this statement literally condones and facilitates a culture of slavery.  It’s easy to skim past things like that.

Zechariah 14 gives insight into its authors’ mentality:  “Lo, a day shall come for the Lord when the spoils shall be divided in your midst.  And I will gather all the nations against Jerusalem for battle: the city shall be taken, houses plundered, women ravished…”.

These passages are the tip of a very large iceberg in the Christian bible, and tons of examples of this gross immorality can be found across both the old and new testaments.

Christians tend to cherry-pick the bible and only find passages that seem consistent with their version of faith that was taught to them; however, doing so ignores a logical dilemma:  if the bible is the ultimate source of morality, and the teachings in the bible come directly from God, how could parts of the bible be immoral?  How could the bible have immorality if it is the foundation of morality?

The practical answer to this is that people have a moral compass that tells them if something is moral or immoral.  But then, why do Christians need the bible if they already have an internal mechanism to show them right from wrong?  An alternative answer to the question is that all the depictions of God in the bible are indeed moral.  In that event, God is a monster.

Honestly, this was never a dilemma for me when I was a Christian, because I always saw the bible as part fairy tale and part truth; in fact, the problems of immorality in the bible weren’t even a main factor in my deconversion.  It was always quite clear to me that the most zealous Christians were teetering on, and often falling off, the edge between reason and lunacy.

But I do find it interesting when Christians have to grapple with these questions, because in my opinion, they do not have the upper hand in the argument:  if you have to cherry-pick a philosophy, that means the philosophy is, at best, imperfect.  The more cherry-picking you have to do, the more imperfect the philosophy is.  The only way a person can conclude that the bible (and by extension, Christianity) is moral is by cherry picking, or by rejecting their innate sense of right and wrong.