I get mail from Neo, but he’s not cool like in the Matrix

Someone calling themselves “Neo” from the Skeptic Arena emailed me on the subject of my previous article, sending me a Word document with his replies in. I pointed out that emailing Word documents around is a bit odd, showed him where the comment box is, pointed out that he didn’t seem to have read the previous post properly, and went on my way.

Neo wasn’t content with that, and has now featured our conversation on his web site as a another Word document. Publically posting private emails is rude, but seeing as Neo has done it, he’s lost the right to complain about the following. I’ve replied to selected points below the cut, but you can see the whole thing in all its glory on Neo’s site, if you’re worried I’m being a bit too selective.

If you’re short of time, here’s what you can learn from this:

  • Atheists aren’t necessarily more rational than anyone else. Some of them write green ink emails to other atheists.
  • Arguments are not soldiers: it’s not rational to attack an argument merely because it’s for the opposing “side”.
  • Some people take this to the next level: they confuse mentioning an argument with using it, and attack the person mentioning anyway. Here’s a Christian example, and another atheist example, both directed at me. If both sides argue with me, I’ve achieved perfect balance in the Force! (edit: actually, one is directed at Yvain and I just pointed it out).

Paul wrote: If an atheist says “All reasonable beliefs require evidence, there is no evidence for God, therefore belief in God is unreasonable”, the clever apologist will ask “All reasonable beliefs? Really? What evidence could there be for your belief that all beliefs require evidence?”

Neo wrote: Paul, you palmed a card: you omitted the adjective “reasonable” before “beliefs” near the end of the paragraph. Your omission completely changed the meaning.

I agree that I should have written “reasonable” in the second sentence. The problem that the apologist is setting up is that the atheist then believes something unreasonable by their own lights, namely that all reasonable beliefs require evidence.

Paul wrote: They will then go on to point out that it seems we all have to accept some unevidenced beliefs

Neo wrote: Paul, like what? And why would I do that?

The classic example is a belief that we are not brains in vats (surely you must be familiar with The Matrix, as you’re The One?), and the belief that inferences like “All X‘s I’ve seen have property Y, therefore the next X I see will have Y” are valid. See my previous posting, Bad arguments about religion: faith and evidence, for more discussion of this.

Do you believe that all reasonable beliefs require evidence, by the way? What’s your evidence for that belief?

Paul (as the hypothetical apologist):“We’re not so different, you and I.”

Neo: Paul, we couldn’t be more different. In fact, I would be willing to wager both my grapefruits that sex between a rationalist and a Ghost Worshipper would not result in an offspring … we are different species.

You are not a very rational rationalist. In particular, you have failed to learn that rationalist lesson that arguments are not soldiers, and you apparently don’t understand the use/mention distinction. You saw arguments which appeared to benefit the theist team, who are on the other side from you, and attacked them without bothering to examine whether I was in fact advancing those arguments or merely reporting them. So you assumed I was a theist (“we couldn’t be more different”) and attacked on that basis, but in fact I’m an atheist.

Paul: I followed up with another comment explaining why Craig gets (admittedly grudging) respect from atheists

Neo: Paul, you must be hanging around the wrong crowd. Craig is a dishonest ass clown who neither deserves, nor gets, respect from any halfway competent Atheist.

Note that the “respect” I’m referring to is respect for Craig as a formidable opponent, not any sort of deference to him or his views. Luke Muehlhauser ran the excellent Common Sense Atheism and has a healthy respect for Craig’s abilities. Ciphergoth is no slouch as an atheist, and told Eliezer Yudkowsky not to underestimate Craig. As there are two more than halfway competent atheists who respect Craig, your claim is false.

Paul (quoting Craig): the best explanation is a person who lacks several of properties of all persons we encounter (not material, not existing in time)

Neo: Paul, there is no such thing as “not existing in time.” That is nonsense. They can’t explain what it means because it has no meaning. First one must understand what time is: http://theskepticarena.com/scienceStories.aspx#neoScience (essay #2). Now ask them to explain what they mean by “outside of time.” They can’t do it because it doesn’t make any sense.

I agree that it’s not at all clear that “a person who exists outside time” is a coherent concept. Your own essay on time is nonsense, I’m afraid. In particular, it confuses popular explanations of relativity with the actual theory and then draws conclusions on that basis (I hate to get in to a qualification war, but I have an actual degree in this stuff, from the local university).

Paul: Dawkins will not debate with Craig because Dawkins would lose, horribly

Neo: Paul, it is not possible to win a debate when one has no evidence with which to debate. It is only possible to give the “impression” that one has won … and even then only to his rabid followers who never had any intention to begin with … of listening with an open mind.

If Craig speaks convincingly enough to sway undecided listeners, he wins, by some definition of winning (there are criteria for judging formal debates, but I don’t know much about those, so I’ll use this definition). If his opponents are left in disarray or looking stupid, they lose. By this definition, Craig wins a lot. You seem to have ignored my footnote, though, which said that it’s perfectly possible to believe Craig wins a lot while being an atheist. Can you work out why that is?

Neo then responds to me pointing out that he appears to have taken quotation of an apologist as my actual argument.

Neo: Nowhere in your essay do you indicate that you were quoting an actual Christian apologist. Not once did you provide a reference or an attribution. It was clear that you were paraphrasing an imaginary Christian apologist.

You seem to be taking the word “quotation” very literally. The hypothetical apologist’s arguments were in quotation marks to indicate speech. It apparently wasn’t clear enough to you what I was doing (before I replied to your first email and set you straight), because you criticised me as if I were making the hypothetical apologist’s argument. Why not just admit you were mistaken? A mark of a rationalist is that you can admit errors in the face of evidence.

Neo then apparently decides I’m censoring comments, because he read the original post over on LiveJournal, where I don’t allow comments, so as to keep them all here. Among the many things he failed to read correctly was the bit at the bottom of the post on LJ telling people where to comment on my own site, and the URL which followed the text “It’s a bit odd to reply to a blog post by emailing someone a Word document rather than, say, using the little box at the bottom provided for that purpose” in my first response to him. He left off this URL when he published my private email on his site. Deceptive selective quoting is a habit of creationists, not rationalists.

2 thoughts on “I get mail from Neo, but he’s not cool like in the Matrix”

    1. Hmm… possibly I’m feeding the trolls. I did consider whether to just ignore him, and didn’t respond to the first email publicly. However, it’s got me back to blogging a bit, so there’s that.

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