Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Profiles in Ignorance: The Argument from Ignorance Revisited

As an amusing follow-up to last week’s post on the argument from ignorance, I’d like to post one example of the argument in action.
This example comes from an interview given in 2007 by Richard Dawkins, one of the world’s most prominent scientists and outspoken atheists, to Bill O’Reilly, one of the world’s most annoying blowhards. O'Reilly is, for those who are blissfully ignorant of his existence, the host of a talk "news" show -- and I use the term "news" sparingly -- that consists mostly of his opinion on things and interviews in which he dominates the conversation by talking louder and faster than anyone else.
The interview can be found here, and the remainder of this post will analyze O’Reilly’s appeal to ignorance as an argument for the existence of a god.
O’Reilly begins by saying the following:
I think it takes more faith to be like you, an atheist, than like me, a believer, and it’s because of nature. I just don’t think we could have lucked out to have the tides come in, the tides go out, sun go up, sun go down. Don’t think it could have happened.
In the first place, yes, O’Reilly did just give “sun go up, sun go down” as a reason to believe in God. I suppose we ought to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he was using the cycle of night and day as a kind of synecdoche for order in nature
This is the exact same kind of argument from ignorance I addressed in the last post. O’Reilly is saying that since he doesn’t know how there could be such order in nature, there must have been a god to create that order. He is using ignorance as the basis of a logical argument, which is a fallacy.
Once Dawkins explains that we know quite well why the sun goes up and down and the tides go in and out, O’Reilly changes tactics and jumps from order to the origin of all things. “It had to come from somewhere,” he asserts. Dawkins points out that this is indeed the “leap of faith” that O’Reilly is making, the one that atheists don’t make: O’Reilly chooses – on the basis of nothing but ignorance – to believe that the universe came from Jesus, and not from any of the thousands of other gods or supernatural claims he could accept.
O’Reilly answers:
I’m not positive that Jesus is God, but I’m throwing in with Jesus [and here, Dawkins faintly says, “That’s the leap”], rather than throwing in with you guys because you guys can’t tell me how it all got here. You guys…don’t know.
And there you have it. It’s the old, “Unless you can give me a natural explanation, I’m going to choose to believe claim X just because!”
Note that O’Reilly implies that religion does know “how it all got here.” This is false. Religions, of all kinds, provide unsubstantiated claims about origins, but they don’t know any more than anyone else does. Scientists, on the other hand, admit that we don’t know, and they work to try to discover evidence and the best explanations based on that evidence.
When Dawkins notes that scientists are “working on” discovering the explanation for origins, O’Reilly laughs derisively and says, “When you got it, maybe I’ll listen.”
What O’Reilly is saying, basically, is something along the lines of “We don’t know, so I’ll just believe the story that’s most comforting to me, and I’ll keep believing it until you can disprove it.” This is not a sensible way to acquire knowledge of anything at all.
It’s quite reminiscent of the attitudes of occultists – another kind of religious believers – when they say that they’re going to believe that their experience was really a “past life memory” or an instance of “levitation” until science can prove to them otherwise.
Now, of course, I don’t object to O’Reilly’s right to, er, “throw in” with whomever he likes. My objection is specifically with his acceptance of factual claims on the basis of ignorance. One has to wonder, though, what it means to “throw in” with Jesus. Presumably, there is much in Jesus’ teachings that O’Reilly does not agree with. I doubt, for example, that O’Reilly is in favor of Jesus’ explicit communism, secularism, pacifism, and philosophy of imminent-doomsday-so-sell-everything-you-have-and-live-for-today.
“Jesus” has become, in the popular imagination, not a preacher related to any of those radical ideas, but a symbol of conformity to contemporary values, or, more broadly, just a meaningless affirmation that one believes that there is more than just the natural world (presumably as a comfort to ease the fear of death). In short, when O’Reilly says that he “throws in” with Jesus, he presumably means nothing more than “I like the Jesus story, I uncritically accept most of my culture’s values, and I’d really like there to be life after death.”
As an aside, you can view a somewhat cute “remix” of the above interview here. It might make you smile.
For a look at O’Reilly’s ethos – and to see the extent to which he “throws in” with those Christlike values – here’s a clip of him (found here) as host of Inside Edition in the 90’s, treating his co-workers like crap and going off on a profanity-filled tirade at his own inability to read a teleprompter correctly. [Warning: Not Safe for Work]
And, let’s go for it: the remix of the above rant (found here), a catchy remix -- one of my absolute favorites -- that will stay in your mind far longer than you would like it to. [Warning: Also Not Safe for Work]

1 comment:

  1. the last remix is the best thing i've ever seen O'Reilly do.