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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