Anyone Know Of A Computer I Can Debate With?

Posted in Atheism, Blogosphere, Logic, Religion, Skepticism, Thinking Critically on  | 10 minutes | 5 Comments →

I'm actually serious in asking that question. Besides skating the streets with zero cars on the road, another one of my fantasies is a supercomputer that can deduce the logical correctness of any argument. Don't get me wrong, I love debating with humans of any and all stripe. In fact, some who know me might say this is an understatement. Yet no endeavor is likely to persist in the absence of a worthwhile payoff, and every now and again I find myself getting really discouraged and sullen about debate.

Right now is one of those times and there is one simple reason for this discouragement: Humans are prone to motivations above and beyond the resolution of pure logic. Unlike computers, humans possess the peculiar ability to deny truth, and the reasons humans do this are as many as the stars in the night sky. If I ask a computer, "Is (X) = (~X)", I'm going to get a straight and honest answer. The computer can't stop to think, "Well, if I admit / deny that (X) = (~X), I'll look weak / wrong / unintelligent / contradictory."

The stakes are raised all the higher when people involved have personal histories: "Argh! I can't agree with so-and-so, I've completely denounced so-and-so as an idiot, sophist and troll!" Although certainly not without their own frustrating breaches of logic (Windows Task Manager, anyone?), computers are impervious to these types of errors, errors which stem from human pride. It's a fact that many people have major issues admitting when they are wrong.

Consider your average blog post about, say, atheism vs. theism. Consider how people in the comment threads often have vested interests far above and beyond the logical correctness of a given proposition, often resulting in a vehement struggle to maintain the appearance of correctness no matter what the cost. It's just plain frustrating to break an argument down to the point where you think it's so bloody obvious that nobody could disagree, yet still, and often inexplicably, people continue to disagree. And unlike computers, instead of justifying claims with clear logic, humans often resort to personal jabs and other red-herrings which further detract from the resolution of the proposition at hand.

Here's an example from a thread I was on recently. The thread itself is but one in a long series of exchanges between DD, the blog's host, and Jayman, his opponent. The original context was alleged miracles, and more specifically, whether we can know that God is present in any or all alleged miracles.

DD says,

My point is related to what I call the Undeniable Fact and its Inescapable Consequence. The Undeniable Fact is that God does not show
up in real life. The Inescapable Consequence is that we have no basis
for our conclusions regarding God, other than to put our trust in the
words, speculations, and feelings of men. This is a serious
consequence, because it means so-called faith in God is really just
trust in fallible men (who happen to contradict themselves, each other,
and observable reality).

In that context, if we encounter some event whose causes we do not
understand, God still has not shown up. Even if He secretly and
miraculously performed the deed that puzzles us, He did not make
Himself sufficiently observable enough for us to know that He was the
cause of the event, and therefore the Inescapable Consequence is still
inescapable. There is no observable behavior of God for us to base our
faith on, there are only things that fallible and limited humans fail
to understand, and which some of them superstitiously attribute to the
deity or magical entity of their choice.

This means that if a man is shot dead in the road, then gets up to go the liquor store to buy a forty and a pack of gum, we have no proof of God or miracles. Although in a spirit of rational rigueur I agree, several red flags remain.

First, I found it strange that DD capitalized what are presumably his own arguments. Capitalization is normally reserved for proper nouns and venerated truths. Capitalizing what are presumably one's own arguments just seems weird. But that's a minor quibble.

DD says, "The Undeniable Fact is that God does not show up in real life." Jayman and myself took immediate issue with this, and claimed DD made an appeal to omniscience. It's one thing to state what you believe, but how can DD know that God does not show up in real life? With what
authority can DD pronounce his conclusions as universally true? Does DD have sufficient knowledge of all alleged miracles or all
of real life to support his claim? Clearly not.

Now, where else do I agree with DD? I agree in the sense that I've never witnessed a miracle where God literally popped Himself into materiality and took verbal credit saying, "I, the Most High God, did this." Does that mean it has never happened? And even if it did happen, couldn't the being claiming to be God be an imposter? If myself or DD have not personally witnessed something, does that mean the something in question never happens? Of course not, so Jayman responded,

While some other alleged miracles have similar traits to Bernadette’s
story many other alleged miracles do not. It is not logical to assume
that if you can explain one story you can explain all stories. Rather,
to confidently assert that God never acts in history, which you do
regularly, you would have to be omniscient. Therefore, it is an
extraordinary claim to assert that you know God never acts. The
extraordinary evidence for such knowledge is never offered.

Right on, Jayman. You'd think this was straightforward logic, yet DD replies,

Let’s suppose that you and I are outdoors on a dark, cloudless night, looking at the stars. “Look at all those stars,” I say. “Countless billions, and yet not a one of them is our sun.”

“Wait a minute,” you object. “How do you know none of those stars is our sun? You can’t possibly have examined each and every one of them. Most of them aren’t even visible to the naked eye. You would have to be omniscient to know that none of them is our sun!”

You’d never say that, of course, because you agree with me: none of
them is our sun. This is not a conclusion we reach by a brute force
enumeration of each and every star in the cosmos, followed by detailed
analysis of each. Rather, we know this because of one very fundamental
and obvious fact: if any of the stars in the sky above us were the sun, it would be day, not night.

And backpatters in the comment thread call this a "thing of beauty," a "great extended metaphor" and "one of the best posts" they've ever read? Really? To each their own I suppose, but remember that even B-grade peanut butter can be turned into an impressive and sparkling diamond fit for the finger of any would-be princess. Seriously people! It's stuff like this that leads me to believe many atheists and skeptics are as averse to logic as any Fundamentalist, or perhaps completely blind due to partisanship and vested interests outside the logical correctness of the proposition at hand.

Let's take a look at this star analogy to see if we can prove it's no diamond, but first, note that in order to prove what is not a diamond, we must first be able to prove what is a diamond, otherwise we have no standard against which we might reasonably exclude potential diamonds. This is an important point that essentially hangs DD's analogy out to dry.

First the technical stuff: For this analysis, the definition of "not our sun" is all stars > 91,840,000 miles away from Earth, and can be represented by AS. The definition of "our sun" is the star that is 91,840,000 miles away from Earth, and can be represented as S. Next, all alleged miracles can be represented by AM, and a genuine miracle in which God shows up can be represented by GM.

Jayman and myself are claiming that without omniscience, DD cannot justifiably make the all-exclusive claim that it is an undeniable
fact God has not shown up, and our reasoning
is that DD cannot possibly have made brute force enumeration of each and every instance. So DD offers the above star analogy as an example of a situation where brute force enumeration of each and every instance is not necessary to justify an all-exclusive claim, and although I agree with DD on that point, he contrasts claims for which empirical evidence exists with claims for which no empirical evidence exists. DD's analogy rests on an irrecoverable category error which renders it useless in justifying his particular all-exclusive claim.

Fact: DD is correct in that we would not have to be omniscient to know that AS != S, because empirical evidence exists proving that S = ~AS. Quite simply, we know that the star 91,840,000 miles away from Earth is S, so we can justifiably exclude AS as ~S. Empirical evidence justifies the exclusion of AS as ~S, and this is a simple process of elimination.

Fact: We would have to be omniscient to know that AM != GM, because unlike the situation with S, zero empirical evidence exists corroborating an instance of GM in the first place. The process of elimination is only valid when we have an authentic original to compare against. The lack of empirical evidence in this area means we are not justified in our exclusion of AM as ~GM. We are not justified in this exclusion because no incontrovertible, empirical evidence corroborates an instance of GM in the first place, and how might we prove what is not GM if we can't prove what is GM?

I've now tried several times to rerun this logic while defending DD's position, and now my brain hurts. By all means, correct me if I've missed something, but I say that DD's analogy is little more than rhetorical trickery. DD equates, "God has not shown up convincingly to DD" with "It is an undeniable fact that God does not show up," and such is a textbook example of hasty generalization. On what incontrovertible empirical evidence might DD know, as opposed to believe, that AM != GM?

But back to being discouraged and sullen. I doubt any of these efforts will persuade one single person who is already determined to avoid persuasion. Long ago I accepted the frustrating reality that you can lead a horse to water, but you can't make it drink. Nothing would imbibe my estimations of the human spirit with more optimism than if one of those people were to concede, "Ah cl, I see that you do have a point here."

I'm not asking anyone to abandon their atheism. I'm just asking for a fair logical shake.


  1. cl


    I was trying to see my argument from the POV of my opponents when the following question arose: Why am I justified to say DD can’t conclude no genuine miracles exist, yet I would say I am justified in concluding the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist? Why does FSM get a free pass? I mean, he’s cute and all, but let’s be fair, right?
    Although I’ve certainly got an answer, I’ll wait to see what the thread generates, if anything. If nothing, I’ll come back and talk to myself more.

  2. Gabriel


    I would like to see your answer to this one cL.
    And I also wish to be more of use in this lovely debate you incite us to take part, but knowing myself, I can’t. I’m not a very good logical debater, I tend to lose myself in my train of thought and, ultimately, becoming paralitic as my mind struggles to chose the most logical of all answers: a task for which the poor thing is mostly unsuited. As result, I’m bound to watch more fit people to argue hoping to learn something from it.
    I hope you do not mind this friendly lurker :)

  3. Aloha, Cl.
    Let me start by saying, “”Ah cl, I see that you do have a point here.”
    Now let me say something my first ever computer science teacher told the class on our first day of instruction.
    Garbage in, garbage out.
    A computer, like logic, is nothing more than a tool. Neither a computer nor logic is any use in the hands of a human being than the sum total of that individuals strengths and weaknesses. You could probably program a computer to use the rules of logic to expose assumptions and point out weaknesses or facts that would need to be independently verified to vouch for the solidity of a logical argument, but the arguments themselves would be no more “true” than the facts themselves.
    Useful? Yes. But it wouldn’t give us truth.
    As I see it, the problem is not finding the perfectly logical argument or the perfectly programmed computer. The problem is humanity itself and our inability to see ourselves for what we are– imperfect, limited creatures who are instinctively wired (be it by evolution or original sin) to look out for a defend “numero uno.” That goes for everything from finding food to trying to win an argument.
    Until we all humble ourselves and realize we’re not infallible and that it’s okay to concede a point, to admit we just don’t know everything, or acknowledge the remote possibility that, despite the strength of our opinions, we might actually be wrong, we’re just going to continue getting ourselves and each other needlessly irritated over things that really shouldn’t cause such intractable disagreement and anger. It also wouldn’t hurt if we didn’t always doubt the sincerity of those we disagree with and recognize that everyone’s out there looking for answers as bes they can.
    In short, I wonder if many people on both sides of the debate wouldn’t be better off finding a good therapist than a good logic text book.
    As always… there are exceptions.
    That’s my two cents anyway.

  4. cl


    I apologize for getting totally carried away with this but I don’t practice writing dialog enough anymore. But here’s my answer, and I welcome lurkers, I am one too!

    (atheist cl) Why are you justified to say DD can’t conclude no genuine miracles exist, yet you would say you were completely justified in concluding the Flying Spaghetti Monster does not exist? Seems like quite the case of special pleading, no?

    That’s a valid question, and no it’s not special pleading. Let’s admit it – the doctrine of the Flying Spaghetti Monster was never invented as a genuine observation about reality.

    (atheist cl) Well, we can just as readily and honestly say that about genuine miracles. And God and the whole bit.

    No you can’t, man! Nobody’s ever reported a sighting or communication with an FSM, there’s no written documents allegedly inspired by an FSM, and with the exception of people who debate in onliine forums too much (us), nobody in the real world has ever even heard of anything remotely close to an FSM.

    (atheist cl) Ah, I see. So, if a bunch of people believe in some ludicrous claim, then it’s true? Argument from popularity?

    No, and now you’re strawmanning me. That’s not the only possible conclusion from my previous statement, nor is it a logical one. Now, where you’re right is in that yes, quantity of believers does not entail quality of beliefs. That’s not what I’m saying.

    (atheist cl) Well, what are you saying?

    I’m saying that haggling DD for claiming “the Undeniable Fact that God does not show up” in ANY alleged miracles is fundamentally and categorically different than leaving the NULL position in favor of negative in the case of FSM. Picture a dual column with God on the left and FSM on the right. The rows below contain criteria such as purported sightings, purported inspiration of texts, purported miracles, etc. No matter how many legitimate criteria we add, FSM is going to have a zero in just about every single instance, possibly even in all instances.

    (atheist cl) And what’s the point of your silly little diagram? You’re just being pedantic and sophist and trying to explain your point verbosely so it seems like it makes more sense.

    Excuse me? Now you denounce me or my logic because you disagree? Tell me how believing in something for which authentic bits of evidence are zero can be fairly compared against something for which myriad bits of circumstantial and anecdotal evidence exist? Sure, there’s no conclusive, repeateable, testable evidence we can show someone to prove God, and same with FSM. On the other hand, FSM’s scorecard in the area of preliminary evidence or really evidence of any sort is nil, while God’s is way up there. Does that prove God? No. Does that disprove FSM? No, but we are certainly more justified in leaving the NULL position in the case of a claim that far greater than zero instances of evidence, right?

    (atheist cl) That’s a loaded statement. I don’t believe there is any evidence for God whatsoever.

    Again, persuasive, convincing, repeatable, testable, observable God evidence does not exist. That’s true. However, whether we accept them or not, there are thousands upon thousands of years of anecdotes, alleged miracles, legitimately unexplainable events, all ranging from amazingly similar and consistent to wildly different. None of this proves God the way most rationalists want it, but it sure does provide much more ground for a reasonable individual to leave the NULL hypothesis in favor of Maybe in the question of God.

  5. Brad


    cl said, “Besides skateboarding the streets of San Francisco with zero cars on the road, another one of my wet dreams is a supercomputer that can deduce the logical correctness of any argument.”
    @Lifeguard: You’re right, the validity of an argument doesn’t imply the truth of that argument (its ‘soundness’); it only finds its truth value conditional on the truth values of its underlying assumptions, axioms, premises, presuppositions, starting points, whatever you call them. But that’s all cl was asking for (rhetorically, I think but am not sure): a tool to check when our reasoning falters or succeeds in logical rigor. If our investigative thought process is guess-and-check, then such a computer as cl hypothetically envisions would put our “checker” capacity at 100%. (Well, insofar as we can program it with all possible and appropriate logical inferences to check for.)
    @cl: Although I have nothing to add to the debate on Evangelical Realism, I do have something to say about your computer idea, even if it was only a minor introductory point. Computers have already been used to check the logical validity of symbolic proofs, and can do so to an amazing extent. Google “automated proof checking” or more generally, “automated reasoning.”
    In fact, the Four Color Theorem was checked by computer, because mathematicians figured out that all possible 2D-plane maps reduced down to nearly 2,000 configurations that all needed to be checked independently, and the computer ended up spitting out a proof worth hundreds of pages of symbols on print. Some are skeptical, but most accept it, although people say it’s not a very elegant way to prove a theorem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *