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.

7 thoughts on “Darth Dawkins’ Failed Argument”

  1. Excellent summary! I am glad you guys identified the logical fallacy in his argument against agnosticism. But of course you just imagined all of this, since you don’t have a foundation for reason..

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Spot on. I was listening in on the call when Ask Yourself said he was an atheist in regard to Darth’s definition of a “self-revelatory” god. He became immediately combative, perhaps because of the hole poked in his argument. He really does love to shout, especially when others are making sense and he is not. “You’re filibustering!” is one of his favorite things to say when he is filibustering.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. While I totally understand, this makes a little sad. Watching your talks with him are as entertaining as they are informative. I get the frustration though. You’ve been beyond charitable.

        Like

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