Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Do Atheists Overuse Silly Examples?

When arguing with Theists we often have to argue about burden of proof. We will ask for them to prove that God exists and they will respond that we should prove that he doesn't. Of course, proving a negative is impossible but explaining the difference between "prove he exists" and "prove he doesn't exists" can be difficult. One way to demonstrate this is to ask the theist to prove that another God (say Thor) doesn't exist. It's impossible, but they might say that there is no good reason to think he exists, at which point you can say the same thing about Yahweh.

Instead of using Thor, some atheists prefer to use an example that is obviously made up and no one has ever actually believed in it. The universe was created by a flying spaghetti monster. There's nobody who does or ever has actually believed in it, but it demonstrates the same point, there is no way to prove its wrong. It can also be kind of fun, people can edit famous art and such to include the FSM. It can become somewhat of an atheist rallying cry I guess, a bit goofy perhaps, but it's all in good fun.

There are also several other concepts used to show that proving that some things don't exist is impossible, Russel's teapot, the invisible pink unicorn, and the dragon in my garage. I like all of these things and think they provide a good example for the burden of proof. You shouldn't believe there is an incorporeal dragon in my garage who breaths fire that won't burn you unless I give you an actual reason to believe it exists. Given the properties I have claimed it has, there is no way to prove it doesn't exist, but of course I have also given no reason to think it is real. Additionally, the invisible pink unicorn is claimed to have contradictory properties, how can it be invisible and pink?

pic source
As far as I can see it, there are two uses for these things, the first I mentioned above, somewhat of an atheist rallying cry. It's kind of fun to have a flying spaghetti monster on your car, or your binder at school or whatever. Second, it could be useful in a discussion with a theist, if you can get them to try to explain how they know the teapot doesn't exist, perhaps you can show them that the same logic could apply to their God.  Not that it would be quite that simple, but it could be one point among many that could work it's way into someone's brain.

The other thing that can be nice about these types of concepts is they provide a bit of shorthand. If I say "Russel's teapot" a lot of extra information comes along, you know I am talking about the difficulty of proving that something doesn't exist. If I say "invisible pink unicorn" you know I am also probably talking about contradictory attributes in defining something. But is this a good thing or a bad thing? I'm honestly not so sure.

Shorthand can be good if everyone is on the same page, but without going in to the details it is hard to know how true this really is. This can be bad enough when talking with other atheists, but when talking with theists it really could convey no information at all. There's no reason to think that a random theist will have heard of the invisible pink unicorn, and yet I've seen plenty of atheists throw it out like it's some kind of trump card. Furthermore, they often don't seem ready to explain what IPU is and how it applies to the conversation. They just kinda do a "invisible pink unicorn" then drop the mic and walk away. Sometimes if pressed they will just say to go look it up on wikipedia or something. That's crap! At best this suggests that they are just too lazy to explain things, and at worst they don't really understand the point of it in the first place.

While there are times when these ideas fit perfectly into a discussion, I think it would be to our benefit to instead create examples from the ground up to fit whatever argument we are having. Trying to fit one of these examples into an argument where it doesn't quite fit can be counterproductive. Alternatively, we should assume that whoever we are talking to has never heard of it and explain it completely.

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