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CONTEXT

Hello, I'm an engineer with some introductory level studies in philosophy. I need help (or at least a sanity check) from this group in an argument about cherry picking. I'm having an argument with someone but we've stalled in a deadlock. The context is that I'm a holist (trust in science, believe in God) and my opponent is an atheist (trusts in science, believes...?). My opponent has no studies, nor interest in philosophy...he's said "I don't need philosophy".

MY GOAL

I do not want to sneak in theism in this forum, neither do I want to sneak in a negative image of atheism/atheists, neither am I asking for tips to win an argument. I want to know what is the right way to understand our deadlock. I don't care about who is eventually right or wrong (atheism or theism), but I want to learn to apply philosophy to detect fallacies. I hope I'm in a right place in stack exchange. I'm hoping to get answers from both atheist- and believer-philosophers (or students of philosophy) so that I could formulate an coherent opinion. I am not a troll, I have a genuine interest in philosophy.

SITUATION

The deadlock is following. We (myself and the atheist) have argued about a book (the title is irrelevant) created by a Ph.D. (name irrelevant). The problem is, says the atheist very strongly, that author happens to be relatively known christian which makes his work "worthless". He says: "Christian scholars think like this: there is God, then they look thru research papers and cherry pick whatever supports god's existence".

I'm saying back that: "It ain't necessarily so since we can't read those christian scientists' minds. Christian and atheistic scholars MIGHT both be cherry picking but we don't know if they are or not so it's better not to use this line of argumentation at all.". This far I can handle, I'm thinking I'm argumenting rationally...

But then my opponent says very strongly: "No! Atheist scientists do REAL science. They work differently, they look for data objectively and go where the data leads. That's how is should be." So basically he is asserting a functional difference between how christian and atheistic scientists work. Personally I think he's trying set me on an uneven playing field. I think he is committing a genetic fallacy, ie. dismissing some pieces of science because of their source.

My problem is, that he has repeated this argumentation so many times already (in previous argument) and so strongly that I'm not sure anymore who is right. My gut tells me that I'm right, that there should be no difference between atheistic and christian self-respecting scientists, regarding their work habits. I don't believe there is significant cherry picking going on in either direction.

CONCLUSION

So, that is the dilemma recapped as best I could, not having twisted the quotes in any which way. I'm hoping someone can make sense of this situation and give me some advice what to think of this deadlock.

I appreciate your help! Thanks!

EDIT

I forgot to mention that my opponent has not read the book he is attacking. He says he doesn't need to, because he "has been aware the author's work for some time" and because he has read an online review of the book.

CONCLUSION I accepted CortAmmon's answer, but honestly every answer and comment contained something valuable for me. Just to let you know what happened, is that a) I asked for proof of cherry picking, b) pointed out his fallacies (and named them), c) pointed out he hadn't read the book he was criticising and d) that at least 65% of Nobel laureates have been religious.

He didn't address any of [a-d] in his follow-up, he only claimed that I don't address his arguments. So I decided to walk away from the "debate".

I counted he made the ad hominem in five separate replies, of which three after I had pointed to and named the fallacy. This was a true lesson learned for me.

  • 2
    The best way to resolve this deadlock is to stop arguing with the person. I've never seen any good come of such debates. You've both wasted a few hours of your lives that you'll never get back, but perhaps it's worth it to learn to never engage in these types of arguments again :). Of course if you like arguing, then maybe this is worth it for the fun of it. – R. Barzell Mar 5 '15 at 22:35
  • I think you are right. This whole thing a lesson in fighting the right battles for me. :) – Pompair Mar 6 '15 at 22:55
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I have had similar debates a few times. The cleanest way I have found to untie it is to break apart the scientific method into pieces, and demonstrate that one particular piece allows for cherry picking biases, even in pure science.

The scientific method is:

  • (optional) do enough observation to decide it's a good time to invoke the scientific method
  • Generate a theory (the "alternate hypothesis")
  • Generate a null hypothesis which is disprovable (and is usually an accepted hypothesis)
  • Create an experiment which can test the null hypothesis
  • Do the experiment
  • Analyze the data. (We'll assume, for sake of argument, that the analysis is inconsistent with the null hypothesis, though the question of what to do with consistent results in an open ended meta question for science)
  • "Reject the null hypothesis" on the grounds that it is statistically unlikely to be representative of the source of the data.
  • Demonstrate that your alternate hypothesis is more statistically likely to be representative of the source of the data.

However, in this process, there is a key intuitive step which is not bound by any particular rules: "Generate a theory." Nothing in science tells you how to do that. Science recommends particular solutions (such as curve fitting), but it doesn't tell you which theory to make, you must come up with that theory with your own freewill (if you believe in such).

Science can temper this theory, but in the end, when you reject your null hypothesis, all you end up saying is "the alternate hypothesis did better than the null hypothesis." You do not assert whether the alternate hypothesis is "the best" hypothesis.

Thus, if you have a strong bias against theism, as it sounds like your friend may have, you may select alternate hypothesis which are not only non-theistic, but you may even select alternate hypothesis which, if "proven," will make it easier to make non-theistic hypothesis in the future.

It is believed that the gathering of data in the scientific method is a safeguard against this, but it is an imperfect statistical safeguard. It is entirely possible that the universe is constructed in a way which causes science to slowly drift off course. There's several "shapes" which can be used to demonstrate this, but I find patterns based off of Nightingale Betting to be particularly interesting because it is based on statistics (just like science is).

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The deadlock is following. We (myself and the atheist) have argued about a book (the title is irrelevant) created by a Ph.D. (name irrelevant). The problem is, says the atheist very strongly, that author happens to be relatively known christian which makes his work "worthless". He says: "Christian scholars think like this: there is God, then they look thru research papers and cherry pick whatever supports god's existence".

This is clearly an argumentum ad hominem. The work of the author is deemed worthless because of his background. Your dialogue partner seems to think that the work of a (theologically) biased author is worthless a priori, while for the work of an unbiased author this is not the case. The work of an unbiased author would then need to have certain attributes before we can deem it worthless.

Propose your dialogue partner the following:

  • We define some unbiased machine M that outputs some theory T. This T is randomised.
  • Now suppose T is exactly the theory as described by the author you're discussing.
  • Since T was proposed by a christian, his work is deemed "worthless".
  • However, following the underlying assumption as I described before, since T was proposed by an unbiased author, his work needs to have some attribute to show that it's worthless.

In other words, ask your partner to precisely define his notion of worthlessness, and then ask him to show that the work you're discussing is worthless in a way irrelevant of who wrote it (to avoid the ad hominem).

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    I really like this response; it's a firm place to restart the discussion. The only 2 cents I would add is that anyone working in science is subject to biases, & the modern scientific method is designed to minimize/eliminate these (& of course they should know this, and ideally not think themselves "above it"). The OP's friend is trying to illustrate the existence of one type of bias (which may be true, but needs to be defined, as you say), but he himself may be operating from an opposite or different type of bias. – CRGreen Mar 6 '15 at 1:18
  • Absolutely agreed! But the atheist doesn't seem to realise that. – user2953 Mar 6 '15 at 7:49
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Forcefulness and repetition may sometimes win debates, but they don't improve arguments. If the forum is social media, don't worry about convincing your friend, just construct the best possible arguments for the benefit of the larger audience.

In general for a deadlock, there's no moving forward by directly opposing your interlocutor's premise. Logic teaches us to accept his or her premises, and try to derive a contradiction.

To apply that to this debate, take his premise and run with it -- "so you'd be willing to reject any science done by any Christian, regardless of the quality of the work? So you'd reject [Descartes], [Pascal], etc. No more analytic geometry?" If it turned out that there was actual factual support that every atheist did good science, and no Christian did, he would deserve to win the debate. But assuming the facts don't match, he's stuck either giving up his premise or admitting that his position isn't based on the facts.

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It's a little difficult to assess the nature of the deadlock without knowing specifically what you're disagreeing about. But here's a shot. First, note that your friend is making an empirical claim: it is (very roughly) the kind of thing we could go out and verify. Have you tried asking him to provide evidence in support of his view that Christian and non-Christian scientists differ methodologically?

Second, he seems to be committing a common fallacy by rejecting someone's view because of who they are, what they believe, etc. when none of those things are directly relevant to the truth or falsity of the view in question. Ask yourself: does being a christian or non-christian have anything to do with the truth of what the author is saying? If yes, then perhaps your friend is on to something. If no, then your friend's comments are irrelevant.

  • The second paragraph is plausible, but not fully substantiated by the OP, in particular the quotes providing the atheist's position don't lead me to the conclusion made there. – Dave Mar 5 '15 at 20:20
  • Wow, thank you for a very quick answer! I will wait a few days and then give the points for an accepted answer, if you don't mind. Yeah, I consciously left out the exact topic so it would not influence the answers. – Pompair Mar 5 '15 at 20:20
  • Dave, what is an OP, please? – Pompair Mar 5 '15 at 20:21
  • OP = Original Post. @Dave this is the bit that led me towards that reading: "says the atheist very strongly, that author happens to be relatively known christian which makes his work "worthless"". – possibleWorld Mar 5 '15 at 20:38
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I would simply point out to him that:

  • Newton was a Christian (and a young earth creationist at that)
  • Einstein was to some extent a believer
  • Darwin was a believer

Or if you want to be less dramatic, simply point out that alot of great scientists were also believers. You might also want to point out that many of the great philosophers were believers who didn't push a religious agenda, and clearly separated their religious faith from their philosophical results (Kant, Wittgenstein,...)

You can also point out that when it comes to scientists, it is necessary to separate their personal beliefs from their scientific output, not just with regards to theism/atheism. Several notable scientists were nazis, racists, or otherwise deeply flawed humans. As long as their scientific statements are falsifiable, they can be separated from their personal beliefs.

I come from a similar place as your friend, being surprised at how a scientist can buy into religious dogma.

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I think your initial response to his is problematic.

Christian and atheistic scholars MIGHT both be cherry picking but we don't know if they are or not so it's better not to use this line of argumentation at all.

On a pragmatic level, you're putting him on the defensive, which actually works in his favour because there's a long philosophical tradition underlying scientific methodology he can call on. That's probably why you're deadlocked.

Philosophically, though, you're conceding a valuable point in the discussion which is that the intent of the author is substantial in your dispute - it's just that it cannot be wholly determined due to the opacity of the thinking subject. That concession is enough for someone interested in theorising about the mind to take the following line:

  • To understand the mind is to understand the manifested difference it makes on the behaviour of agents.
  • It is in principle possible to affirm the intention of an author by making reference to a wider body of actions they have taken in the past.
  • Therefore we CAN know whether an author is cherry picking.

Since broadly speaking secular science does not make reference to souls or minds independently of their realization in bodies, there's no real compulsion to accept your argument anyway that the mind is indisputably opaque to outside observation.

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