Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Am I Begging the Question, or a hypocrite?

A chipmunk
I've cut back on accusing people of making straw man arguments, but rather simply focus on explaining why the person is mistaken. It's one of those terms that can be taken too far.

It isn't a straw man argument every time someone misunderstand what you're saying.

Likewise, I fear I may be accusing others of "Begging the Question" far too often. It's a fairly easy condemnation to make, especially when one is used to being in the negative position most of the time.

Am I guilty of doing the same things when I posit positive claims?

I try to be self conscious enough to keep checking whether I'm making the fallacies I accuse others of making. I want to be honest about that.

The other day I released a video where one of the arguments I addressed was whether radioactive decay constants, used in radiometric dating, are reliable and consistent. I'm not sold on the idea that I made my case particularly well, because I could hear the objections like an apparition in the wind.

I attempted to show that the radioactive decay constants are consistent through several data points going back about 1.8 billion years. 

Am I begging the question as to whether they varied in between those data points? Am I begging the question as to whether the data I gathered isn't a lie? 

In a sense, anything could be begging the question. No matter what, someone can dig up something. It becomes sort of a "God of the gaps" style objection.

I am quite harsh in my disassembly of theistic claims - pointing out every logical fallacy I can detect - even to the point where things I accept as true might not qualify as rational. Am I just being a hypocrite, demanding such a high level of evidence, while not requiring the same level for my own? Do I beg the question?

I don't think I am, and I don't think I'm being a hypocrite.

What is Begging the Question?

Begging the question is when you assume some massive premise as part of your argument. For example:
Everything that's created has a creator. Thus, since everything in existence is created, everything must have a creator - and that's God.
It begs the question - is everything created?

In my case, I'm not begging the question as to whether radiometric dating is consistent and reliable. I have evidence to back it up. It's not an assumption. It may not be very well backed up, but it's at least supported.

Why do you hold theists to a higher standard than yourself?

It's a question of mundane versus extraordinary claims. When I was explaining how the radioactive constants are consistent over time, in order for my claim to hold true, no laws of physics had to be broken. I wasn't contradicting large amounts of established fact. No, the only thing I was asserting was that what we had observed being true in the short term remained true in the long term - meaning, I was claiming that things would continue normally.

That doesn't have a terribly high burden of proof. Its skeptical requirements aren't terribly harsh.

On the other hand, someone else is claiming that a brainless mind (undemonstrated claim) created the universe (undemonstrated claim), in contrast to everything we know about how reality works, such as minds requiring "brains" of some sort, or that indications are that the universe runs under its own laws of physics, etc. This person has a gigantic burden of proof.

I base my beliefs on what is demonstrably true, while these theists are basing their beliefs by rejecting scientific fact and asserting their own unsupported unevidenced ideas.

Guess who has the higher burden of proof?

Of course, you could assert that I'm begging the question as to whether "scientific fact" can be taken as true. You'd be wrong, because science demonstrably works. I'm using a computer that operates on true scientific knowledge. It's not perfect, but it works fairly well. Thus, since it's supported by working, it's not begging the question.

This all goes right back to my description of precedent probability - it's a lot easier to demonstrate things that compliment and are supported by already existing knowledge than it is to demonstrate something that is in opposition of already existing knowledge.

That's why I hold theists to a higher standard than my own beliefs. With arguments like cosmological arguments, they have a tendency of making claims about bizarre extreme contexts where our understandings break down, but do so as casually as taking a stroll through the park.

It's not hypocrisy. It's applying the appropriate level of skepticism and burden, based on the claims. 
  • The consistency of radiometric dating only needs the rates to stay constant to be reliable, which theists can agree are reliable in the short term - low burden of proof.
  • "Macroevolution" is literally the accumulation of a bunch of "microevolutionary" steps, which most theists accept as true - medium burden of proof.
  • Minds can exist without brains, they assert, even though all evidence indicates that minds are dependent on brains, like a computer program is contingent on a computer, and we have no examples of brainless minds - high burden of proof.
This standard is applied consistently, and appropriately.

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