A Taxonomy of Polemists

The following are several non-discrete categories of polemists.

  1. The Poser
    The term “poser” is here used non-pejoratively. The Poser is simply the polemist who offers arguments and/or tones not his/her own. This is a normal and effective device employed by those new to the topic, and who would like to assess the counter-arguments against his/her own. He/she may take a more aggressive tone in an attempt to quickly elicit the most compelling responses for honest assessment.
  2. The One-Way Valve
    This dogmatic polemist rarely asks questions. The dialog is one-way. He/she rarely possess the open-mindedness he/she expect of his/her audience. He/she often simply repeats (often simply copying & pasting) arguments he/she has heard, and any refutations of those arguments or counter-arguments are simply ignored. They often see no shame in their unwarranted dogmatism.
  3. The Idealist
    This inexperienced polemist believes that the actual arguments are those with whom he/she is directly engaged. They become easily frustrated with the lack of understanding and open-mindedness of their opponents. As the idealist matures, he/she begins to understand that the actual audience are those silent readers at the periphery, and modifies their arguments accordingly.
  4. The Torn Crotch
    This small-minded polemist has no shame. He/she will repeat arguments that they know to be in error, yet continue to repeat them. When forced into a corner by those patient enough to pursue them in their game, they will simply remove the torn trousers of their current argument, and try on a new pair of rhetorical trousers with an equally large tear in the crotch of logic, and with no apparent shame.
  5. The Logician
    This experienced and erudite polemist attempts to distill arguments to their true rudimentary elements, and to formulate rigorous syllogisms that can be more clearly assessed. Logicians are often scorned for their rigor, especially by those who find slippery free-form argumentation better suited for their erroneous or weak positions.
  6. The Indexer
    This polemist simply invokes philosophers/theologians/scientists without laying out the actual relevant argument. They assume their interlocutor has the responsibly of finding the source and extracting the relevant argument. In many cases, the Indexer does not actually understand the argument of the mind they invoke, much less lay it out coherently.
  7. The Economist
    This mature polemist simply ignores interlocutors who add nothing to the conversation. He/She will keep his/her arguments rigorous with clear examples and customizes his/her arguments for the silent audience on the periphery. The Economist opts out of arguments that do not support his/her core position, and will even confront those on his/her team who put forward flawed arguments.
  8. The Modeler
    This polemist models well-formed arguments so that others of his/her own persuasion can learn to employ similar arguments. They are focused on a balance of rigor, coherence, creative rhetoric and cogency. The Modeler is often undervalued since the positive effects of his/her tutorage are not always immediately visible.
  9. The Archivist
    This meta-polemist prods the opposition in an attempt to generate arguments so that he/she can identify, extract and categorize arguments or fallacies. He/she often represents a position not genuinely or deeply held. The authors of sites that provide a taxonomy of and examples of logical fallacies and cognitive biases (and polemists?) are often Archivists.

  10. (Note I did not introduce “The Troll” since the term is too often employed by those who simply encounter strong opposition to their beliefs.)

The Absurdity of Epistemic Recursion

The other day I encountered a Christian who suggested that, based on my notion that rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the corresponding degree of perceived evidence, I would be required to not only assess the reliability of my mental faculties in assessing a given proposition, but that I would need to also assess the reliability of my mental faculties to assess my mental faculties, and then recursively assess this assessment ad infinitum until I had no justification for any significant degree of belief in the initial proposition.

Here are his very words.

So suppose I agree with you that, given my past experience and familiarity with my own fallibility, I make sure to always proportion my degree of belief to the evidence. Some proposition, call it P, presents itself. I evaluate the evidence for P and decide there is a good amount of evidence in its favor, say for the sake of argument that I think it is 75% likely to be true on the evidence. I determine that I have good reason to believe that P. But that determination is, itself, a reasoning process that I have a belief about, namely I have a belief that my reasoning process has properly arrived at a proper assessment of the probability of P given the evidence. We will call this belief about the likelihood of P Q. My experience with my ability to assess probabilities given evidence tells me that I should put 95% confidence in Q. But if that is true, then I need to lower my confidence in P, since Q tells me that I could be wrong about P being 75% likely. My confidence in Q is a belief that I am also not certain of, and so it, R, says that it is 95% likely that Q is right. But that means that I should be 95% sure that I am 95% sure that I am 75% sure of P. And each time I iterate this, and reflect on my certitude, I must lower my confidence that P until it approaches the point where I cease to be confident that P is true at all.

This demonstrates a lack of understanding of how science works. Let’s walk through this.

I determine that, based on the evidence I perceive, there is a 80% probability that proposition X is true. We can write this as…


When scientists assess the probability of a proposition, they include an assessment of the resolution, biases and accuracy of their instruments in the degree of certainty in the probability. For example, if a sociologists, based on a survey, assesses the probability of a child born into a Evangelical home to still be Evangelical at age 20 to be 80%, that assessment of 80% has attached to it a degree of confidence.

This degree of confidence is called the margin of error. The margin of error does not change the statistically determined probability. It only changes the error bars. If the sample size is small, the statistical analysis may yield an 80% probability, yet margin of error will be large. If the sample size is large, the statistical analysis may again yield an 80% probability, yet margin of error will be smaller. But the assessment for both samples may be identical at an 80% probability.

There may be, in addition to small sample sizes, other elements that can affect the margin of error. One could be a sampling bias. Perhaps Evangelicals are more/less likely to respond to surveys than non-Evangelicals. Perhaps the survey was conducted Sunday morning when most evangelicals are not available to respond to surveys. There are many potential weaknesses in the measurement apparatus. These should be identified in determining the degree of confidence in the statistical determination of the 80% probability, but do not change that 80% probability itself. They only change the margin of error, our confidence in our conclusion.

Part of the assessment also includes the scientists assessment of their track record of reliability. Have they made mistakes in methodology in the past that have resulted in low accuracy of predictions? If so, this does not change the probability they assign to the proposition upon assessment, but only their degree of certainty in that assessment, the error bars.

In light of this, this apologist, if he has even a fundamental understanding of science, will have to admit that an assessment of the tools of assessment, including the mind doing the assessment, does not in any way affect the probabilistic conclusion. Only the margin of error can be affected.

But perhaps that is what this apologist is actually saying. Perhaps he is saying we don’t have any respectable margin of error in any assessment we make. Let’s take a closer look.

Let’s say our conclusion of P(X).8 is accompanied by a margin of error (ME) of 10%. We might write this…

P(X).8 & ME(X).1

This apologist, for some reason, believes we need to include a recursively to this. This is what we might end up with after 5 recursions.

P(X).8 & ME(ME(ME(ME(ME(X).1).1).1).1).1 = .00001

The error bars would be located at the poles! This would indeed destroy our confidence in our apparatus of assessment!

But is this what scientists do?



Let me list a few reasons, some very obvious.

1. It would have destroyed science long ago. If no one had had legitimate confidence in the apparatus of their methodology (including their own minds), science would have never gotten off the ground. But science works! Are we now to trade what works for something that doesn’t?

2. There is no logical imperative to employ this silly recursive assessment of the assessing apparatus. If there is, I’d like to see it laid out in syllogistic form. It appears that this apologist would like to force this rule on recursion on the scientific method so he can dismiss it as unreliable. This is straw-manning in its most dishonest form.

3. The process of employing this invented rule of infinite recursion of assessments would require eternity. This apologist seems to believe that we need to assess our assessment of our assessment of our assessment…ad infinitum. This apologist presumably is not currently engaged in this assessment of his own assessments. Why impose it on others?

4. For an epistemic agent to be rational in any given epistemic context, they merely need to position their degree of belief in a proposition X to the degree that the evidence relevant to X warrants. This conclusion is in no way immutable. It may be changed later as more evidence arrives, including evidence relevant to the mental faculties of the scientist.

In conclusion, it appears that his epistemic recursion is not something done by this apologist, but only something he is imposing on the normal successful epistemology employed in scientific inquiry in an attempt to make it equivalent or inferior to his own epistemology.

The epistemology employed by science works. Those holding to religious epistemologies are justifiably envious of its success. And this is the probable cause of their failing attempts to dismantle the epistemology of science.

UPDATE: The following was posted on a Facebook group in “response” to this article. I’ll answer {thus} between the lines.

In addition to violating the spirit of this closed group, Phil Stilwell misrepresents [commenter], and posts an Unbelievable? argument on his own blog. Phil wildly fails to realize that his own epistemology must provide an answer to the problems posed by Humean skepticism and the problem of induction. {I don’t need to address those issues related to “truth” and “knowledge”. I’m not addressing what is “truth” or how we acquire “knowledge”. I’ve made it very clear I’m focused on rationality. This perennial conflation between truth and rationality is the crux of the problem.} Rather than answering those problems, he instead charges [commenter] with being inconsistent in his own epistemology. But [commenter] doesn’t hold a Humean epistemology. Phil does. {Wrong. I don’t. And, yes, [commenter] needs to substantiate his own epistemology. Of course.}
Phil then affirms [commenter]’s very true claim that his epistemology cannot be supported if meta-skepticism is true, because the fundamental principle “apportion one’s evidence…” cannot itself be evidenced. {Simply ask yourself what would it mean to believe something to a degree NOT corresponding to the degree of the evidence. Where has this method ever worked?} Phil doesn’t actually think his guiding epistemic principle is irrational, however, because in his metaepistemology he mistakenly identifies rationality with pragmatism, and thinks that this apologist’s condition for belief-justification is not pragmatic, and therefore not rational. {You are here suggesting that, following what works needs to be demonstrated to work. :) See the problem?} For pragmatic reasons, he tells us, it’s impossible to support any beliefs if skepticism is true. But one must get along in the world with some beliefs, therefore [commenter]’s question can be rejected. {[Commenter]’s question can be rejected since he is confusing “truth” with “rationality”.}
It’s quite a spectacle. By identifying the two concepts with each other, he strips rationality of any content, and therefore any of its epistemic weight. {If you want absolute truth/knowledge, you’ll likely never find it. But the lack of it does diminish rationality in any way. Once again, you’ve confused “truth” with “rationality”.} Because if rationality is just what works, and what works is just a subjective inference, then the deluded are just as warranted in their beliefs as those who are mentally sound (whatever that means if skepticism is true.) {If we are deluded by an evil demon, yet honestly follow what we perceive to work, we are rational but wrong. That’s due to no lack of responsibility on our part. Rationality is our only epistemic responsibility.} If Phil replies that “[what] works” is just getting what you want given the furniture of the world, then he abandons the subjective inferentiality of his own meta-epistemology, and loses again. {Simply wrong. Rationality (once again) is simply believing X to a degree that maps to the degree of perceived evidence for X. This is not that difficult. Simply pay attention to what I actually say.}

Note that this is not an actual response to my post above.

Christian apologists are simply attempting to distract from the fact that they have a bankrupt epistemology that they can’t defend.

The Granularity Inherent to Language

“I love you.”

This phrase is said millions of times a minute around the world in various languages.

But when you look at the phrase, it is very binary. It would appear from the phrase that either you love someone or you don’t. We know that is not true. We understand that, while the phrase “I love you” is binary, the underlying concept of love lies on a gradient. We love someone in degrees. We usually ignore the inadequacy of language, and simply accept the fact that the person who tells us they love us loves us to a degree that warrants a confession of that love.

It becomes a bit trickier when making statements of belief.

We often make statements such as “It will rain today”, knowing full well there is at least a small change it may not. We don’t apologize for our slight doubt, and people don’t normally shame us if it turns out that there was no rain. We could always preface our statements with “There is an extremely high probability that…”, but most people in the language community do not require this outside of scientific contexts where precision is of importance.

So language is granular while many of the concepts for which it is employed to reflect are gradient.

Recently there have been some pointing to my statements and calling them “truth claims”. It appears that truth claims, in their minds, constitute statements of absolute certainty. The problem is, I don’t have absolute certainty in anything I say. I may have logical certainty (based on my confidence in the reliability of logic) or physical certainty (based on my confidence in the reliability in the laws of physics), but I don’t have absolute certainty about anything. Some suppose this to be a weakness, claiming that, what is not held with absolute certainty is not knowledge. If so, knowledge is not available to fallible humans. But to say I am not rational to have a high degree of certainty in any proposition that I don’t hold with absolute certainty is clearly wrong and just plain silly. This silly attempt to do away with the gradient of certainty inherent to the honest attempt to map belief to the degree of the evidence is usually promoted by those who have a method of distilling truth inferior to science, and who want to even the chess game by bumping the table. This is childish.

Rational belief is a degree of belief that maps to the degree of the evidence. Belief is not inherently binary. Rational belief is inherently gradient since most inductively assessed propositions add confirming/dis-confirming evidence incrementally along the continuum of probability. The fact that the language I employ to reflect my beliefs does not precisely reflect my epistemic position on a particular proposition is not my attempt to misrepresent my position, but merely a natural result of the granularity of language. If you would like a more granularity concerning my actual degree of certainty, please ask for that. But to state that I have made a “truth claim” upon which I have absolute certainty is dishonesty on your part.

So I may make statements such as “The god of the bible is imaginary”. If you disagree, don’t tell me that my statement is arrogant and requires omniscience. Get about the business of demonstrating that I’m wrong. If you demonstrate that, I’ll concede. My high expectation you will fail at that is justified by a long history of asking many other Christians for a defense of their brand of theism, only to have them offer feeble arguments upon which no god-belief is rationally justified. But my dogmatism is not the absolute dogmatism of theism. I’d be happy to follow the truth wherever the evidence leads. But playing word games with language to misrepresent my actual position is dishonest, and reflects poorly on your proposed god.

Where’s the fun in that?

Extracting the Meaning of Life

Imagine a friend asks you to explain the essence of a basketball game. So you 1) carefully explain there are 2 teams of 5 players, each attempting to acquire the most points by tossing a ball into a hoop, 2) provide the dimensions of the basketball court, then 3) list all the rules of the game.

Imagine that friend coming back to you to in anger, claiming that, they have been to a basketball game, that that a real basketball game does not seem anything like you’ve described. There was excitement, and passion, and disappointment and euphoria! How can you claim that a basketball game is merely what you’ve described! Where’s the fun in the dry physical description of the game? There must also be some special magic that make the basketball game become what it feels like!

This is the same type of protestation made by theists who believe in a spiritual realm. How can our essence be based on a merely material composition when we experience life as so much more? What about the joys and sorrows and love we experience? There must be a spiritual realm above our material realm!

Let’s dig deeper into this apparent problem.

According to your friend, the essence of a basketball game had to be one of 2 things.

  1. A rigorous, dispassionate and mechanical explanation of the objectives
  2. A special magic that transcends the physical aspect of the game mentioned above

According to theists, the essence of a human life had to be one of 2 things.

  1. A rigorous, dispassionate and mechanical explanation of the material components of the human’s existence
  2. A special spiritual existence that transcends the material components of life mentioned above

What are we missing? Are we forced to choose between only these 2 options? Continue reading

Think before you Leap

The steps in choosing a lover are…
1. find a non-imaginary man/woman
2. carefully assess whether they are worthy of your love
3. chose and love them only if they are real and worthy of your love.

The steps in choosing a god are typically…
1. choose and love some god (commonly the god of your parent and/or geographical region)
2. carefully assess whether that god is real (optional)
3. carefully assess whether they are worthy of your belief/love (optional)

Millions are currently walking around loving an imaginary god. Don’t let that be you.

Here are ways to carefully assess the existence and worthiness of a candidate god BEFORE you believe in that god.

A. Does that god stand by while millions of innocent children suffer?
B. Does knowledge of that god come through direct and unequivocal communication with that god, or through some “holy” book that has led to thousands of sects and mutually exclusive doctrines?
C. Does that god “fulfill” his promises in a way completely in line with what we would expect if that god were imaginary?
D. Is that god so emotionally incontinent it thinks the smallest sin deserves eternal torment?
E. Has that god ever commanded grown adults to slaughter innocent infants or, instead of condemning slavery, provided laws to govern slavery?
F. Do the “miracles” of that god decline as the scrutiny of scientific observation increases?
G. Do the proponents of that god encourage belief in that god by young children before those young children have been taught how to properly assess gods and how to tell the difference between the feeling of certainty and scientific certainty?
H. Does the “holy” book of that god encourage you to believe things to a degree that is not warranted by a corresponding degree of evidence?
I. Does the justifications for that god require the introduction of additional unsubstantiated and unparsimonious entities for balance such as a “devil”, “angels” and “demons”?
M. Is that god “loving”, yet decides the “punishment” for offenses is eternal, in stark contrast to the punishment of actual loving parents?
N. Is that god so mathematically illiterate that he thinks 3 days of death pays for the “deserved” eternal punishment of offenders?
O. Do the defenders of that god wave away legitimate questions about that god’s moral character or potency by invoking the “mysterious” nature of that god?
P. Can the relationship between humans and that god be explained by the natural capability and propensity of humans to self-deceive?
Q. Has the history of belief in that god led to or stifled scientific/medical curiosity and advances?
R. Is the “holy” book of truth of that god written rigorously, or written so vaguely that it has been able to have been used to justify nearly every atrocity under the sun?
S. Do those who believe in that god have any greater self-control as evidence by reduced rates of divorce and obesity?
T. Does the “holy” book of that god absurdly claim that those who have never heard of that god are guilty of rejecting that god?
U. Is there an inverse correlation between followers of that god and those highly educated and skilled in rational thought?
V. Do proponents of that god attempt to insulate believers by banning the exploration of opposing ideas?
W. Is the only way to that god said to be “faith”, yet those who have “faith” can’t agree on what “faith” actually is?
X. Is the presence of that god largely experienced in an emotionally-rich context of singing, ritual, and the closing one’s eyes to recede into one’s own mind rather than a very clear open-eyed viewing of that god?
Y. Is that god “unchanging”, yet has a history of ordering the killing of infants, the taking of female virgins by theocratic soldiers, and the endorsement or silence of issues of slavery and polygamy that believers dismiss as irrelevant since they happened when that god was younger?
Z. Is that god extremely powerful, yet need your money?

These are just a few of the questions that should be asked about any candidate god BEFORE deciding to believe in that god. Don’t trust anyone who tries to encourage you to believe without assessing both the existence and worthiness of any god.

The bulk of scientific thinkers do not believe in a personal god. God believers with tell you that this is because they are in rebellion against their pet god. They are liars. Simply befriend a few scientific/rational thinkers. The world becomes a whole lot more beautiful once you understand the power of reason.

The Reliability of Brains

It is quite the oddity for Christians to claim that, if our brains are the products of an unguided process, we must then forever remain uncertain about our brains’ reliability.

You doubt your brain’s reliability? Simply test your brain. We all have goals. Simply divide your goals in half. Then for one half, use your brain. For the other half, don’t use your brain. Which method best accomplished your goals? To what degree did using your brain accomplish your goals? To the degree that your brain worked, to that degree you are justified in believing it will continue to work. Pretty simple.

Consider finding a compass on the ground in the woods. It appears to accurately point north based on its pointing in the same direction that most of the moss on the trees face. Now consider a friend telling you that you can’t ever know whether the compass is reliable unless you know the company that made the compass. Nonsense, right? You simply test the compass. If it reliably gets you home through the woods night after night, it is reliable. Nothing difficult here. Very basic.

Critical Thinking

I‘ve noticed several recent misunderstandings of what is commonly called “critical thinking” or “rational thought”. I’d like to make a few points that I hope will convince you that acquiring and promoting critical thinking will, indeed, have a positive impact on your own life, and on the lives of others.

1. Being critical does not mean doubting things absent reasons for doubt. Instead, being critical is simply not believing everything we hear without first assessing the claims. For example, if a neighbor, with a history of lying, claims something quite possible such as “Billy kissed Sue last night”, we have good reason to doubt Walter. Conversely, if hitherto trustworthy parents tell you a fat man will descend a chimney the day before Christmas, they are also to be doubted due to the absurdity of the claim. Critical thinking includes assessments of a) the track record of the sources of claims, b) the congruence of claims with reality, and c) the actual evidence/argumentation provided.

2. Critical thinking is not an ideology. It is a method of processing claims. It is not ‘what’ to think, but rather ‘how’ to think. It begins with no presuppositions. It honestly starts at the foundation and examines every nut and bolt in the construction of concepts and ideologies. And it welcomes the periodic breakdown and reconstruction of concepts and ideologies. And because arguments are independent of the arguer, it welcomes any contrary argument, no matter the source. Therefore, just as scientists working independently on scientific problems find their results converging on the objective truth of the matter, those who apply critical thinking will find their ideologies converging.

3. Critical thinking is not only logic. It is the acquisition of all knowledge that has been demonstrated to lead to the most reliable conclusions. So while it does include the more logic-based knowledge of valid argument forms and logical fallacies, it also includes the psychology-based knowledge of cognitive biases. In addition, it includes the acquisition of statistics, probabilities, standards of evidence, concepts related to cause/effect and experimental design, and very importantly, basic concepts of linguistics and epistemology. It is an investment, but the rewards are immense.

4. Critical thinking is not just academic. It is less philosophy and more science. It is the very set of tools actual scientists are currently using to understand the reality around us. It is what has lead to the medical advances that have doubled the average human lifespan, and to the technologies that have made our lives much more productive and enjoyable. Critical thinking is essentially the balanced application of all the tools currently employed by science to explain and predict our reality.

5. Critical thinking is not only effective in assessments of politics, religion and general ideologies. It is a toolbox that can be carried into the personal arena, and applied within the smaller scope of romance, career and lifestyle. Critical thinking leads to life becoming more predictable, and as a result, you becoming more confident and mature. Life is often messy. But acquiring a healthy toolbox of critical thinking skills will allow you to cut through the noise, and to discover and employ solutions to any problem you encounter. There is no guarantee critical thinking will rescue you from every jam, but it’s your best chance.

6. Critical thinking is not a formula. It is not an algorithm you can plug in to spit out an optimal result. There are no shortcuts to acquiring critical thinking skills. You’ll have to put in the time to explore it as you would any other subject. But, because it is so foundational to living, there is no other better investment you’ll make than to equip yourself with a healthy critical thinking toolbox.

For a fun introduction to critical thinking, check out the following link. They have an excellent podcast.


Stay rational.