Aug 29 2013

Logic vs Ray Comfort

Ray “The Bananaman” Comfort has a reputation for having a casual relationship with logic. Perhaps it’s better to say that they are complete strangers. His latest assault on reason is a an ambush video called “Evolution vs God.” The entire video, right from the title, is an exercise in asking loaded questions.

In the video Comfort is behind the microphone asking apparently random people on a college campus, plus a couple of professors (including PZ Myers), ambush questions about life, the universe, and everything. The video is then edited into brief clips (short attention span theater style) to make it look like Comfort stumped the person being interviewed or that he caught them in a logical trap. The strategy is maximally unfair to those being interviewed, and intellectually disingenuous or just lazy.

Warning – if you have any ability to think critically, or any intellectual self-respect, the video may induce a feeling of extreme disgust, and in some cases heavy vomiting.

Comfort employs two main strategies in his questioning. The first is to ask very nuanced and complicated questions in a simplistic manner. For example, he asks, “Is morality absolute?” followed up by questions like, “Is rape morally wrong?” The philosophical basis of morality is a complex issue, not a fitting subject for a quick one-line answer.

When the person being interviewed tries to give a short but reasonable answer, they are met by a “Gish gallop” of typical logical fallacies. The professors are clearly struggling to summarize a complex subject, while the college students are simply out of their depth. They don’t have the experience to deal with a barrage of twisted logic and are easily tripped up.

The second strategy is to ask questions that are loaded with false premises. Before answering such questions you would need to spend a great deal of time deconstructing all of Comfort’s assumptions.

For example, he asks, “Is life intelligently designed?” When the person predictably says, “No,” he then asks, “Can you make me a rose? If life is not intelligently designed, then you should be able to whip one up.”

Here he is assuming the very point he is trying to make – that only intelligent design can account for the complexity of life, therefore without intelligent design life can’t be that complex and scientists should be able to make one, no problem.

Comfort ignores the real answer – that evolution is perfectly capable of generating the complexity that we see given billions of years.

What Comfort is doing is an extreme example of asking “gotcha” questions. This is a common strategy, as the idea is very appealing – asking someone with whom you disagree that killer question that exposes their position as untenable and collapses their argument in one fell swoop. These kind of questions are great for movies and contrived drama, but are intellectually almost always fallacious. Any point worth making will usually require establishing some factual premises, exploring a chain of logic, and accounting for possible objections.

All of that, of course, requires actual intellectual work. Don’t look to Ray Comfort for that. He is an apologist, seeking whatever out-of-context tidbits and factoids he can press into service for his predetermined conclusions.

One more example of this lazy style of arguing – Comfort tries to deconstruct the claim by some atheists that certain famous intellectuals were atheists. This is all an argument from authority anyway, and like much of the video is mostly there not to make a valuable intellectual argument but to entertain believers. Comfort’s style here is to take a cherry-picked quote out of context to “establish” that the person was not really an atheist.

The list of atheists include Carl Sagan. Comfort claims that Sagan was really an agnostic, not an atheist. Comfort is assuming that agnostic and atheist are mutually exclusive, when they are not. Sagan (like me) was both an atheist, in that he did not believe in any god, and a philosophical agnostic, in that he recognized that some questions are not scientific.

Here’s a quote which explains his position:

“My view is that if there is no evidence for it, then forget about it. An agnostic is somebody who doesn’t believe in something until there is evidence for it, so I’m agnostic.”

Sagan left behind a large volume of writing an interviews making it clear that he was an atheist.

Comfort also argues that Albert Einstein was not an atheist. It is true that Einstein often referred to “God” but also clarified what he meant by that, essentially the ineffable wonder of the universe. In “the god letter” Einstein wrote:

“The word God is for me nothing more than the expression and product of human weaknesses, the Bible a collection of honorable, but still primitive legends which are nevertheless pretty childish. No interpretation no matter how subtle can (for me) change this. These subtilised interpretations are highly manifold according to their nature and have almost nothing to do with the original text. For me the Jewish religion like all other religions is an incarnation of the most childish superstitions.”

It doesn’t matter at all if certain historical figures believed in God or not. My point here is simply to highlight Comfort’s intellectual laziness and deceptive tactics. He does not appear to be interested in getting to the bottom of any question, but rather simply latching onto any superficial point that he can exploit.

Comfort does serve one purpose, however, as an intellectual buffoon. His work is a great way to study logical fallacies and for the novice critical thinker to sharpen their skills. Take a look at the video and see how many ways you can deconstruct Comfort’s arguments and strategies. I would almost believe that Comfort is a parody of himself – a character used to expose the tactics of fundamentalists. The truth is probably simpler.

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23 responses so far

23 Responses to “Logic vs Ray Comfort”

  1. RichTon 29 Aug 2013 at 9:01 am

    Ray Comfort’s intellectual prowess can be summed up neatly by his threatening to ban someone on his Facebook page because they called him a bibliophile. He assumed this meant a “Bible paedophile”: http://whyevolutionistrue.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/ray-comfort-thinks-that-bibliophile-is-an-insult/

  2. dampes8non 29 Aug 2013 at 10:27 am

    Isn’t this whole article a big ad hominem with the only actual refutations referring to the already pointlessly invalid arguments from authority?

    I’m not saying that Comfort is right. I only wish I had been one of the folks he stopped.

  3. DS1000on 29 Aug 2013 at 1:36 pm

    It’s not an ad hominem because the logic of the article is not “Comfort’s stance is wrong because he’s being unfair”. It’s more like “Comfort is being unfair; take a look at how and why his tactics are wrong”. We could take it as read that his stance is wrong because well… it is. ;-)

  4. Marshallon 29 Aug 2013 at 1:39 pm

    @dampes8n–sure, it is, but ad hominems (homine?) are only a bad thing when they’re used in lieu of an actual logical argument. But the point of this article isn’t to poke holes in Ray Comfort’s methodology (Steve’s done that countless times)–it’s to point out, yet again, that Ray Comfort sucks.

  5. petrucioon 29 Aug 2013 at 2:32 pm

    Me thinks there should be a link to the video somewhere in the article:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0u3-2CGOMQ

  6. sonicon 29 Aug 2013 at 3:09 pm

    I’m not sure, but I think it was ‘Sixty Minutes’– the CBS ‘news’ show that perfected the techniques Comfort is so poorly using. (If he were using the techniques better, they wouldn’t be so obvious).

  7. BillyJoe7on 29 Aug 2013 at 5:48 pm

    Dampes8n,

    ” I only wish I had been one of the folks he stopped”

    Actually, you’re lucky you weren’t one of the folks he stopped. To your utter frustration, he would have either cut you out of the final product completely or, worse still, edited your comment in such a way as to completely mangle what you said.

  8. BillyJoe7on 29 Aug 2013 at 6:04 pm

    Einstein on god:

    “I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it. (Albert Einstein, 1954)”

  9. Davdoodleson 29 Aug 2013 at 9:54 pm

    “Can you make me a rose? If life is not intelligently designed, then you should be able to whip one up.”

    That makes absolutely no sense at all. Not even in Comfort’s weird frame of reference.

    Why would the opposite of “intelligent design”, even from where Comfort sits, be “nature must be simple enough for random passers-by to construct it all”?

    Roses make roses. Not god, and not people.

    Then again, humans have been exerting fairly targetted evolutionary pressure on rose plants for some time now, so maybe they could be said to be the product of some “intelligent” “design” of ours…
    .

  10. Aardwarkon 30 Aug 2013 at 6:57 am

    We teach our children, as we had been taught, that answering questions with other questions is impolite. Well, not always, as it appears. Most of Comfort’s questions would, indeed, be best answered by questions.

    At least, that is what I think I would have done had he come across me. If nothing else, that would, at least, make it harder (though, of course, not impossible) for him to edit the answers so as to appear to have somehow scored. For instance, “Can you make me a rose?” may be nicely answered by “Can you?”, “Could you wait a few billions of years, please?”, or even “What is a rose?” and “What does it mean to make something?” This reminds me of the celebrated “Game of Questions” in Stoppard’s play (and film) “Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. But even there, both players must work together for the game to be meaningful. I highly recommend it as a useful mental exercise.

    Of course, Steve is right in pointing out that Comfort’s strategy has nothing even remotely in common with true intellectual debate. It is nothing but a cheap way to throw dirt into the eyes of opponents, and thus comfort (and “Comfort”) the like-minded (sorry, couldn’t resist the obviously ad hominem pun – remark withdrawn).

    But there is something additional to be mentioned here (hurray, I am coming to my point after only three short passages – I must be improving, or going old, or both) – namely, the reason why the above strategy seems to work, i.e. bring points in the eyes of many in the audience. That reason is part of a bigger problem: the widespread cult of “clear”, “simple”, “straightforward” answers to every question, regardless of how complicated the subject matter may be, or how many incorrect or uncertain premises the question may contain. It is this cult that needs to be fought against at all levels of education. People are still being systematically led to think that one who gives them complex or ambiguous or conditional/contextually dependent answers to ‘simple’ questions is likely to be some sort of a crook. In reality, it is usually exactly the opposite: crooks tend to give seemingly “simple” and “straightforward” answers to questions that – whether they sound simple or not – are as deep as the Universe itself.

  11. cmaximuson 30 Aug 2013 at 10:09 am

    The odd thing about the question of “Is life intelligently designed?” and the follow up “Well can you design a rose then?!” is that when the answer to the first question is “No”, why would Ray then say (hypothetically) “Oh, so you don’t think life is intelligently designed?! Well you’re an intelligence, why don’t YOU design me a rose then!”. It just doesn’t follow since the person has already stated that they don’t think life is intelligently designed.

  12. ccbowerson 30 Aug 2013 at 10:55 am

    Ray T-

    Very funny that he almost banned someone for calling him a “bibliophile.” Before reading the exchange, I wasn’t sure if the commenter was referring to a person with a love for books, or the bible in particular. I’m pretty sure it can be used either way, and although referring to books is much more common, given who we are talking about I almost assumed bible. I’m a bit surprised that he explained his misunderstanding, instead of being more vague.

  13. ccbowerson 30 Aug 2013 at 11:06 am

    “Isn’t this whole article a big ad hominem”

    Informal logical fallacies only apply when they are used as arguments. Pointing out someone else’s logical flaws is not an ad hominem, and it is not even being used as an argument for a particular position. This post is pointing out the argument tactics used, and why they are unfair and logically flawed. The specific reasons why his tactics are fallacious and unfair may not be apparent to everyone, so explaining can be useful.

  14. PharmD28on 30 Aug 2013 at 12:36 pm

    it almost seems cliche to even address this person anymore…but we really have to.

    At least it gives us a treasure trove of opportunities to play “name that logical fallacy”

    Even for the generally sharp skeptic, his tactics when used as he does is can be hard to deal with and maintain desirable appearances for an audience….the gish gallop crap he pulls (and other creationists like him) is just terrible.

    What is the best way to deal with that if you were confronted with it? Seems like logically trying to deconstruct would just play into his ploy to some degree?

  15. Kawarthajonon 30 Aug 2013 at 1:40 pm

    Isn’t it great how Ray Comfort demonizes people who believe in evolution (“evolutionists”, as he calls them) and sets up an either or scenario – you’re either for evolution or for God. He makes it seem as though “evolutionists” are out there to kill God and prove that he doesn’t exist, whereas this is not the case. Evolutionary scientists are just following the evidence and don’t have a nefarious plan to kill people’s belief in God (at least, most of them don’t, not counting the evil, satanic ones). They are following the scientific method because it involves proof and evidence.

    Obviously, the world is a much more complex place than Comfort would have you believe and there are a diversity of worldviews out there, many of which allow for both religion AND science to co-exist in some manner or another (i.e. the Catholic Church). He is setting up a false dichotomy, whereby if you pick one, you kill the other, when in reality they can both co-exist – either together in believers of both God and evolution, or in society in general, wherein believers in evolution and God can co-exist peacefully.

    For my part, I am an atheist, but I am not out to do any harm to believers in religion and God. I believe that a diversity of beliefs is the best thing for society and that they should be allowed to co-exist, unlike Comfort’s US vs. THEM mentality. God help us if Comfort and his like-minded followers ever take control and start dictating what we can or cannot believe in! ;)

    (btw, I just wasted almost 40 minutes of my life watching Comfort’s video and was put off my lunch by it)

  16. BillyJoe7on 30 Aug 2013 at 5:40 pm

    Kawarthajon,

    This is the one area where Ray Comfort is actually correct.

    You cannot logically accept the facts as revealed by science – particularly Evolution and Cosmology – and believe in any of the gods as defined by nearly all the world’s religions. By their very nature, science and religion are not compatible. One relies on reason, evidence, and logic. The other relies on revelation, dogma, and faith. And you cannot pretend that they somehow exist in ‘non-overlapping magisteria’ because that simply is not the case. All religions make fact claims that can and have been refuted by science. That is the simple fact of the matter and cannot, in all honesty, be denied.

    In other words, there are many good reasons for Ray’s discomfort with science

  17. ccbowerson 31 Aug 2013 at 8:56 am

    “This is the one area where Ray Comfort is actually correct.”

    This would only be true if everyone were a fundamentalist, and since Ray is a fundamentalist he has a hard time seeing it any other way. The reality is that many people are more like Kawarthajon than Ray. It is not like evolutionary biologists are thinking about taking down religion while they go about doing the science (in fact I doubt religion even crosses most of their minds).

    Also, all people are capable of holding logically in compatible views, and this allows for there to be many people who find enough compatibility between the two to not be concerned of the incompatibilities. Most people pick and choose aspects of their religion that they observe (in fact the average person has limited knowledge of the details of their religion), so the incorrect claims from their religion are either not recognized or they mentally reconciled by acknowledging that their religious texts are not literally true. For the fundamentalist- they are stuck, so they become denialists.

    There will be conflicts between religious factual claims and actual facts, but I think it is misguided for anyone to focus on the few hot button topics we have like evolution or sexuality. There are many more obvious examples of incorrect factual claims or contradictions besides these like the age of the universe, the shape of the earth, many incorrect statements about animals, how long the earth will exist, etc. These don’t seem to bother most people, so there must be something about the other topics (the complexity of understanding the topics perhaps), that cause a bigger problem that is beyond the simple contradiction.

  18. BillyJoe7on 31 Aug 2013 at 9:38 am

    Well, I was referring to the actual differences between science and religion, not to what people believe as a result of their ignorance of their religion and of science, or as a result of the cognitive dissonance that arises as a result of their knowledge of both. The actual differences between science and religion together with the fact that their fields of relevance necessarily overlap, means that they are in direct conflict. Science is killing religion. That is Ray’s discomfort and it’s real. And I don’t think it’s much less real for non-fundamentalists.

  19. ccbowerson 31 Aug 2013 at 9:52 am

    BJ7- You responded to Kawarthajon, who was clearly speaking about what people actually do in their lives and believe.

    In regards to science killing religion – any knowledge needed to dispense with incorrect factual claims in religious texts has been around for decades and often centuries. The societal changes in the many countries that have seen a decline in religion have much broader causes than scientific knowledge, and have as much to do with their circumstances, politics, and culture. Keep in mind that this trend is not occuring everywhere equally, and in some areas it is not obvious that this trend is even occuring.

  20. froesccnon 31 Aug 2013 at 1:26 pm

    Ugh, I had expected the video to be shorter. Not a well-spent hour of my life.

    I did admire how he got all people to admit on-camera that they were lying and fornicating thieves that would rather save their pet dog than their neighbour – I would have expected people to have the decency to lie about some of that, at least ;)

    Of course, he is trying to highlight the moral deficiencies of atheists, but, without a control group of non-atheists, the point is pretty moot.

    Regarding the insistence on observational evidence between “kinds”: I realize this is not a scientifically meaningful term, but do we have any dense chain of fossiles connecting two species that look “distinctly different”, something that would make a obvious and striking image sequence when put on a poster? You can probably never convince a hard-core creationist, but for most of those who are simply in doubt about evolution that could be quite effective.

  21. BillyJoe7on 31 Aug 2013 at 5:04 pm

    Okay, fair enough.

  22. SteveAon 02 Sep 2013 at 11:19 am

    In future, could we refer to Comfort simply as ‘Bananaman’ rather than ‘The Bananaman’.

    There’s another Bananaman (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bananaman) who I believe pre-dates Comfort’s banana-related activities.

  23. Quineon 10 Sep 2013 at 3:02 pm

    Ray just keeps at it with repeats of his past street preaching. I have written my own replies to his tricks here: Lying for Jesus (redux).

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