Darth Dawkins’ Failed Argument

0. Introduction

Recently Darth Dawkins (i.e. aggressive presup shouty man) has been running an argument according to which agnosticism is contradictory. You can see him make that argument in this short clip. The argument is fallacious, and I pointed that out to him recently. But just to make things crystal clear, I figured I would put it down in writing too.

  1. Darth’s argument

Darth’s argument starts at 2:17 in that video. He says:

Another problem is that agnosticism is the claim that ‘I don’t know that any creator god exists or does not exist’. Now, if that statement is true, then it necessarily follows that Christianity is false. Now, if it necessarily follows that Christianity is false, then the agnostic knows that at least one major contender for the creator god does not exist, thereby contradicting the agnostic statement.

The way this is supposed to work is that the specific idea of the Christian God that Darth has in mind involves the notion of being ‘revelatory’, which is to say that it is part of the definition of God that he has revealed himself to you. On Darth’s conception, if this God existed, then you would know that he existed. It is this concept of God that he thinks agnosticism is incompatible with.

Here is  how the argument is supposed to run:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would know that he exists (Darth’s definition)
  2. You do not know that Darth’s God exists & you do not know that he does not exist (agnosticism)
  3. Therefore, you do know that Darth’s God does not exist. Contradiction!

The conclusion contradicts the second conjunct of premise 2. This is supposed to show that you cannot be agnostic about all gods, because some gods are such that if they existed you would know about them existing. Your not knowing about them existing is enough to know that they do not exist.

On the face of it, there is something fairly intuitive about this argument, and when he is aggressively shouting the premises at people it can be hard to spot where it goes wrong. But on closer inspection it is pretty clear that it is invalid, and we can bring this out very vividly.

2. The problem

So what’s wrong with the argument? Well, first of all, the argument is compressed, and there are clearly steps we haven’t made totally explicit. What exactly is the inference rule we are using to get to the conclusion? It’s not clear. So let’s make it easier. Let’s forget about the second conjunct of the second premise for a minute. Consider the following two premises:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would know that he exists
  2. You do not know that Darth’s God exists

What follows from these premises? Well, it is basically the first two premises of modus tollens, i.e. ‘if p, then q’, and ‘not-q’. So we can apply that here and derive ‘not-p’ as follows:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would know that he exists
  2. You do not know that Darth’s God exists
  3. Therefore, Darth’s God does not exist

We can logically derive from the first two premises that Darth’s God doesn’t exist. If he did, I would know about it, but I don’t, so he doesn’t. So far, so good.

The contradiction Darth wanted to derive was using the second disjunct of agnosticism; ‘you do not know that god does not exist’. We snipped this off just to simplify the argument, but now we should bring it back in:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would know that he exists
  2. You do not know that Darth’s God exists & you do not know that Darth’s God does not exist
  3. Therefore, Darth’s God does not exist

The problem is that so far the conclusion is not the negation of this conjunct. To make it the negation, the conclusion would have to be ‘you know that it is not the case that Darth’s god exists’.

But the modus tollens we applied originally does not get us to this new conclusion. That is, the following is invalid:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would know that he exists
  2. You do not know that Darth’s God exists
  3. Therefore, you know that Darth’s God does not exist

Why is this invalid? Well, simply put, we can imagine the premises true and the conclusion false. Here is one example. Let’s just grant premise 1, as it is basically a definition anyway. Let’s suppose the subject in question does not know that this God exists (making premise 2 true). All we have to further suppose is that he doesn’t realise that this entails that Darth’s God doesn’t exist (which would make the conclusion false). This would mean that the premises are true and the conclusion is false. And there is nothing logically contradictory or incoherent about this supposition; there could easily be someone who fits the bill. Therefore, it is possible (i.e. logically consistent) for the premises to be true and the conclusion to be false, and that is what it means for an argument to be invalid.

The wider point is just that it is possible to not know everything that logically follows from what you know. When I pointed this out to Darth, I used a mathematical example. Suppose there is some conjecture in mathematics that is currently unproven. Either the conjecture is true, or it is false (it has to be one or the other). But as it is unproven, I don’t know which it is. But I do know the basic axioms of mathematics and the inference rules. So technically the truth or falsity of the conjecture (whichever it is) follows logically from stuff that I know. So this is an example of how you can not know what logically follows from what you know. And that means that you have to do more than just show that something is implied by what someone knows to conclude that they know the implication as well; often we are ignorant of the implications of what we know.

3. What about people who do know the conclusion?

But let’s suppose that if Darth walks his agnostic interlocutor through the reasoning, then he is highlighting the consequences of their belief to them. They might not have been aware of the consequences of their belief beforehand, but now they are, because Darth has helpfully demonstrated it to them.

Indulge me with a little dialogue:

Darth: ‘You believe neither that God exists, nor that he doesn’t exist, right?’

Agnostic: ‘Sure’

Darth: ‘Well, my God is such that if he existed, then you would know about him’.

Agnostic:’Ok, sure’

Darth: ‘Ok, Good. So it follows from you not currently knowing that my God exists that he doesn’t exist, by modus tollens. Right?’

Agnostic: ‘Oh yeah, I see what you mean. My mental state of not believing in him is logically incompatible with him existing.’

Now that Darth has raised to the level of consciousness how it follows from her beliefs that Darth’s God doesn’t exist, shouldn’t we say that our agnostic now knows the conclusion?

Well, maybe that’s fine. I mean, what if the agnostic person simply says something like: ‘Well, I guess I’m not agnostic about your version of God then. I am agnostic generally about the notion of god, but now you have spelled out the logical consequences of your particular God existing, I guess I am an atheist about that God; I positively believe, even know, that your God doesn’t exist.’

And once we spell it out like that, it seems perfectly reasonable. I mean, it is fine to not have exactly the same attitude towards every god concept. You might be more sceptical about the Mormon God than the Islamic God, or whatever. You might be an atheist about the Mormon God, but only agnostic about the Islamic God, etc. Why think we should have an absolutely universal attitude towards all god concepts?

Yet, this move is dismissed by Darth in this video (timestamped). Ask Yourself says that although he is generally an agnostic, he is an atheist with respect to Darth’s conception of God. Darth calls that a “childish response”, and laughs at it. But Darth’s dismissal here is itself a silly thing to say.

The problem for Darth here is that it is obviously unproblematic to take different attitudes towards different God concepts, especially if we are allowed to do what Darth does and tack on properties that God has, like ‘being such that you would know if he existed’, etc. As a particularly trivial example, consider the following:

A) The god such that it doesn’t exist

Obviously, if anyone bothered to think about this god concept, they would likely come to believe that it doesn’t exist (it doesn’t exist by definition). We can generate a slightly less trivial example as follows:

B) The god such that if I exist, then it doesn’t exist

Presuming you know that you exist, then you can easily conclude that this god doesn’t exist either. It is easy to come up with examples of this sort of thing. The god such that if I am having a sensation of blue right now (while looking at the sky or whatever) then it doesn’t exist; the god such that if I am thinking about arguments like this right now then it doesn’t exist, etc, etc.

So anyone who says they are agnostic will almost certainly caveat that claim somewhat, such as “…but obviously I do not mean that I have no opinion about trivially non-existent god concepts, such as the god such that it doesn’t exist, or the god such that if I existed then it wouldn’t exist, etc. About those types of god concept I do have an opinion, I believe that they do not exist.” It’s not childish or irrational to make that move at all.

But imagine we were to insist, as Darth seems to, that the terms ‘agnostic’ and ‘atheist’ could only be used to indicate an absolutely uniform attitude towards every god concept. Surely, then the term ‘theist’ would also fit that pattern. But if so, we could generate just the sort of trap that Darth thinks he has set. Consider the following god concept:

C) The god such that if you believe in it, then it doesn’t exist. 

There is going to be something contradictory about believing in such a god. If you know C), and believe in this god, you can conclude (with a helpful interlocutor who will walk you through the steps) that such a being doesn’t exist. Therefore, there is precisely the same sort of contradiction in claiming to believe in this sort of god.

So imagine the following dialogue:

Interlocutor: So Darth, you believe in God, correct?

Darth: I am a theist, yes.

Interlocutor: Theism is contradictory though.

Darth: How so?

Interlocutor: Well, believing in the god such that if you believed in it then it wouldn’t exist entails that it doesn’t exist. If you grasp that inference, but continue to believe in it, then you believe in two incompatible propositions; you believe that it exists and also believe that it doesn’t exist.

Darth: But I am a Christian theist. That means I believe in the Christian God, not the God that is such that if I believed in it then it wouldn’t exist. I don’t believe that god exists at all.

In this dialogue, the attempt by the interlocutor to trap Darth into being committed to believing that the god such that it wouldn’t exist if you believe in it is obviously disingenuous. When Darth says he is a theist, he doesn’t mean he believes in that god. He means he believes in the Christian God.

This whole trap requires a kind of bait and switch, in getting Darth to commit to ‘theism’, but then to insist that he means to assert that he believes in a god concept that cannot be rationally committed to. The way out of this, which is a perfectly reasonable way out, is for Darth to insist that he has a non-universal attitude towards the family of god concepts; one of them he believes in, but the others he positively disbelieves in. That is to say, he is a theist with respect to Christian theism, but atheist about all the other god concepts (such as the one on the table). Yet, this move, nuancing the meaning of theism towards specific god concepts, is exactly the move that Ask Yourself made with respect to atheism and agnosticism. This is the very move that Darth decried as childish. But unless he allowed himself to make the same move, he would be caught by this version of his own problem.

Let’s summarise where we are:

  • Darth’s argument is invalid for the simple reason that it trades off the false notion that everyone knows the logical consequences of the things they know. That is false, as the mathematical example shows. So even if you are someone who knows that if Darth’s god existed you would believe in him, and that you do not believe in him, all it takes is to be unreflective enough about the consequences of this to not form the belief that he does not exist for your mental states to be consistent. Not only is this possible, but this sort of thing happens to all of us all the time. Nobody knows all the consequences of the propositions they believe. Even Darth.
  • But then if we consider someone who has actively and explicitly considered the propositions and implications in question here, they should just accept that they are not universally agnostic; about some god concepts they do actively believe that there is no such god. Not only is there nothing silly about this sort of move, because of trivial god concepts (like the god such that it doesn’t exist), unless Darth made use of the same move he would be caught in his own argument.

4. What about suppressed belief?

It might be that you believe something without realising that you believe it. Perhaps people believe things but their psychology forces themselves to deny that to themselves, like if someone witnesses something traumatic as a child and represses the memory, etc. Perhaps our sinful nature has a similar psychological effect, forcing us to repress our inate belief in the Christian God. Wouldn’t this undermine the agnostic’s claim to not believe in God?

Not really. Let’s make a distinction between gods that if they existed then you would explicitly believe that they existed, and ones where you would either explicitly believe that they exist or have a suppressed belief that they exist. The first is the version of Darth’s God that we have dealt with already. Simply not being aware of belief in this God is enough to entail its non-existence. But what about the new version? Let’s rewrite the argument from above:

  1. If Darth’s God exists, then you would either explicitly believe that he exists, or have a suppressed belief that he exists
  2. You do not explicitly believe that Darth’s God exists
  3. Therefore, Darth’s God does not exist

This argument is invalid. It has the form ‘if p, then (q or r)’, ‘not-q’, therefore ‘not-p’. It is invalid precisely because we have to rule out both q and r in order to derive not-p; just ruling out q is not enough.

What this means is that agnosticism is not contradictory with this version of God, even if someone like Darth was to walk them through the steps to bring it to their attention. From their own lack of explicit belief, all they could conclude is that either that god doesn’t exist, or they have a belief that they are not aware of. Nothing else follows. So it makes sense to remain agnostic in such a circumstance. The trap Darth is trying to set doesn’t even spring if the type of belief involved can be suppressed. It only gets off the starting blocks if the condition associated with the god existing is such that you can determine if it holds or not. In this case, the agnostic cannot introspect and tell which of the two options (god not existing, or them having an unconscious belief) is true.

5. Conclusion

Darth’s argument here only seems like it works because he presents it in an aggressive way. It is all rhetoric and no substance. When people try to talk to Darth, it often seems like he gets the better of them. But if he were to drop the hyper-aggressive style and talk like an equal with someone, it would be clear under fair logical analysis that the argument is hopelessly flawed.

Tom Jump’s moral theory

0. Introduction

Tom Jump is an atheist YouTuber with a prolific output, making videos several times a week, mostly debating Christian philosophers. Recently, he did a debate with Ask Yourself in which they discussed whether there are moral facts or not, with Jump arguing that there are. Jump’s position is that there is something like a ‘moral law’, which has similarities to physical laws. Their debate descended into a squabble over whether a specific statement of Jump’s expressed a proposition or not. I don’t want to follow that part of the discussion, but I do want to look at Jump’s theory as (I think) he intends it, and to point out some of the problems it has.

  1. What is the theory?

As I said above, Jump thinks that morality is objective, in a similar way to physical laws. Objective in this context means that it exists independently of any minds. We take physical laws, like the law of gravitation, to obtain in the universe just as much whether there are any minds present or not. If a moral law is objective, then it too would obtain just as well without any minds in existence.

Jump’s idea is that objective morality is defined in relation to the notion of involuntary impositions. I think we can have a go at reconstructing his idea as follows:

Action x is a morally wrong iff x is an involuntary imposition on A, for some agent A.

Part of the problem here is that we need to get clearer on what it means for something to be involuntary. This is because on various ways of understanding this term we run into trouble.

2. First go.

On one way of thinking about it, involuntary means something like ‘not actively consented to’. When things happen to someone but they have not specifically chosen that they happen, these are immoral. And sometimes that is right; sometimes things we haven’t actively consented to are immoral.

But this definition of ‘involuntary’ cannot be  what it means to be immoral, because if it were then it would classify things as immoral that are obviously not. For example, surprise birthday parties are not immoral, yet the recipient has ‘not actively consented to’ them happening. So it isn’t the case that the definition immoral is an involuntary imposition on someone, if involuntary means ‘not actively consented to’.

3. Second go

One might think that the problem with the surprise birthday case is that it isn’t involuntary unless you have actively stated that you do not want a surprise party. So maybe we could improve things by changing the definition of ‘involuntary’ from ‘not actively consented to’ to something like ‘against stated preference’. So before, the surprise party was immoral just because you didn’t say anything about the party, but now it would only be immoral if it went against your actively stated preferences. Assuming you have never actively expressed a preference for not having any surprise parties, it would not be an involuntary imposition on you for your friends to throw one for you, and so not immoral. This is an improvement, because it doesn’t misclassify surprise birthday parties.

And there is something fairly intuitive about this idea. Certainly sometimes things that go against our actively stated preferences are immoral. If someone tells you they do not want to have sex with you, but you continue to try to have sex with them then this would be a case of sexual assault, and clearly immoral.

But again, despite this partial alignment, this definition of involuntary cannot be the what it means to be immoral. That’s because there are obvious cases where things go against our stated preference, and are thus ‘involuntary’ in that sense, but that are not immoral. Imagine I go into a bar and order a beer. After I have finished it I state that my preference is for it to be on the house. If the bartender insisted that I have to pay for it, this would make it an ‘involuntary imposition’, because it is against my stated preference. But it is not an immoral thing for the bartender to do; he is quite within his moral rights to charge me for the beer, regardless of whether I stated that I would prefer not to pay for it. So there are obvious cases of things that are against my stated preferences which are not immoral.

4. Third go

As another try, we might say that something is involuntary if it is ‘against my desires’. We might think that the problem is that our previous two tries to define ‘involuntary’ were about whether we do, or no not, say something in particular. In contrast, we might think that it is about whether we have a desire or not, and not about what we say at all. So let’s define ‘involuntary’ as ‘against our desires’.

This would help with the surprise party example, as follows. Assuming I am the sort of person who enjoys surprise parties, then even though I haven’t actively stated that I consent to it, it wouldn’t be involuntary as such, because it wouldn’t be against my desires. It is the sort of thing I would have consented to had I known about it, because I desire that sort of thing to happen. So it is not involuntary, and so not immoral. So far, so good.

However, this is no help in the bartender case. I might just order a drink and desire for it to be on the house, but not say anything out loud. Is the bartender doing something immoral by charging me for the beer? No, clearly he is not. So this has the same problem here. Sometimes things happen that we don’t want to happen which are not immoral. Too bad.

This version also has problems from the other direction too. The problem is that sometimes people have immoral desires. Take a heroin addict who asks for his doctor to prescribe him some heroin. Clearly, the addict desires the heroin. Prescribing it to the addict wouldn’t be an involuntary imposition on him. But it is at least of dubious moral value for the doctor to do, if not outright immoral, even if the doctor wants the money being offered. Take another example: maybe some unstable (North Korean?) dictator asks an advanced country (the UK?) if he can buy some tanks from them. Clearly, it wouldn’t be an involuntary imposition on him to sell him the weapons, and maybe the other country wants the money. Still, just because both parties desire it doesn’t mean it is not immoral. We can easily iterate these examples.

5. Fourth go

One standard way to respond to these sorts of objections is to retreat from what people actually desire, to what they would desire if they were in some idealised state; if they were perfectly rational, etc. We might think that the heroin addict happens to desire another hit, but that he is just suffering from a lack of rationality. If he were being perfectly rational, then he would not desire to have more heroin; he would desire to get clean instead. And there is something intuitive about this particular example.

However, I think it is not so straightforward. The connection between rationality and desires is surprisingly complicated, and something debated at length by philosophers. One simple view, known as ‘Humeanism’ in the literature, is that someone is rational when their actions efficiently realise their desires. If I desire not to get wet, then knowingly walking into the rain without an umbrella is irrational. But, change the desire and the very same action becomes rational – if I want to get wet, then leaving my umbrella behind is rational.

The problem with this simple theory is that if you change the desire to, say, wanting to do something immoral, then the rational thing becomes whatever efficiently realises that desire, which would be to do something immoral. So if you want to kill someone, it might be rational to hit them over the head with a spade. Clearly, there is no guarantee that a perfectly rational person would have no immoral desires on this theory.

We could avoid this problem by abandoning the simple Humean theory. Instead of saying that only desires can motivate us, we could include beliefs too. Being rational might mean something like doing whatever realises your desires but is not believed to be immoral. So take someone who believes that it is wrong to murder people, but desires to kill you. He would be irrational if he hits you on the head with a spade because, although his actions realised his desires, they contradicted his beliefs about what is immoral.

But if someone had Jump’s starting point, then this option would collapse the whole project into circularity. We would have been led down the following path: the definition of immorality involves voluntariness, which in turn involves rationality, which itself involves the notion of beliefs about immorality, and the whole thing becomes a circle. We were offered a definition of immorality which in turn used the notion of immorality.

Thus, Jump is left with a dilemma: either tacitly include the notion of immorality in the definition of rationality, leading to circularity, or stick with Humeanism, and the problem of immoral desires.

6. Final thought

Even if this huge problem were somehow avoided, there is another one that is perhaps even more pressing. The whole point of this theory was supposed to be that it was a theory of objective morality. That means that the moral law that Jump was trying to express (which was supposed to be a bit like a physical law), doesn’t depend on minds to be true. But that is not the case here. If something is immoral when it is involuntary, then it depends on the person having some kind of intentional state, some desire or ‘will’, for it to be in contrast to. In a world where there were no people, there would be no wills for any action to be in contrast with, and so nothing would be immoral. There would be no true proposition, such as ‘x is immoral’, just because there would be no person on whom x would be an involuntary imposition. Thus, this theory is blatantly a variety of subjectivism and not a version of objectivism at all.