Two times lately, Exterminator asked me to define terms I'd used in various statements I'd made around the internet. The first time was at Chaplain's, and when I asked if he was serious, Ex didn't reply. The second time was at SI's, and I decided to give him a formal response here, just for the sake of establishing a record. As for how he and I got to this point, well… SI wrote a post called I Wish I'd Written That in which he re-posted a few questions from Greta Christina's essay, Hey Religious Believers, Where's Your Evidence?
In accordance with my reaction to Greta's original post, in SI's thread, I argued that the reproduced questions were fallacious, which provoked criticism from some of his readers. Here's that conversation summarized:
If there really is a non-physical, spiritual world affecting the physical one… why can't we come to an understanding about the nature of that world, and how it affects this one?
–SI, citing Greta
Loaded question; presupposes that people don't come to any understanding about the nature of the spiritual realm.
–cl, in response
Can you define "spiritual realm"? And can you also define "people" as used in this context? If so, can you then give an example showing how "people" have come to any "understanding" about this "spiritual realm." (Perhaps, just to play fair, you'd better specify what you mean by "understanding," too.)
If you can't give an example, can you at least show how you'd go about falsifying Greta's/SI's presupposition (let's call it a hypothesis). Or does it seem correct, as far as you know?
–Exterminator, in response
I did find Exterminator's apparent lack of concern for their definitions a bit odd, but, nonetheless, let's give it a go.
First off, it's important to realize that Greta's are loaded questions which presuppose their conclusion before deliberation can even begin: "..why can't we come to an understanding about the nature of that world, and how it affects this one?" The clear implication from her choice of words is that we can't. No offense to Greta, but I can't believe that atheists and skeptics are persuaded by this kind of rhetorical posturing. Further, even if Greta's questions weren't loaded as ten drunken sailors, since when are genuine questions about X, Y or Z suitable as arguments against the existence of X, Y or Z? The answer is: they're not. All those types of questions are good for is the establishment of presupposition that may or may not be true. What's the point of that?
Ex is asking me to treat presupposition as a hypothesis, and although I certainly respect his respect for a scientific approach, a genuinely scientific approach begins with open questions designed to encourage the non-partisan pursuit of truth, not loaded, rhetorical questions that take us along on some pre-decided course of inquiry.
For example, if there is a spiritual component to existence, then in accordance with the definitions we establish, is there any sort of supporting evidence we might expect to find? Is there any provisional agreement as to the understanding of these things? Is there any legitimate disagreement? What types of evidence might support spiritual claims? What types of evidence might contradict them? That's how you do decent science: by recognizing, challenging and/or discarding hidden presuppositions, then asking neutral questions. If we load our beliefs into our questions beforehand, we're introducing bias from the start.
But enough lecturing; Ex's comment is easily dismissed as disingenuous. Ex knows I have a blog where I discuss exactly these types of things. For the past two months, I have literally written dozens of posts that answer or attempt to answer exactly these types of questions — for example here.
In fact, I tell this crew the same thing whenever they make their petulant demands for evidence: the definitions and the examples that I believe support my claims are all here, waiting to be examined, but I can't do the work for anyone.