The counter-productiveness of mockery

Second in a series about doubt, rationalization, being mean while debating, and a problem with the empirical assessment of the effectiveness of arguments.

In my last post I explained how I used to struggle with my faith a lot more than I do now. This wasn't just emotional porn, it was preparing for the argument I want to make now. Basically I'm proffering myself as an example of someone reacting to a certain style of argumentation.

See, if, as I claim, throwing out my religion was a life option for years, well, why didn't I? What was holding me back? I like to think it was  intellectual integrity, but  that's not the whole story. Sure, intellectual integrity was what made me notice that the regular thoughts of it all  being bullshit weren't founded in any new arguments but rather in the situation I described in that last post. So basically it explains why I didn't want to capitulate to any particular pang of doubt. But, given that I wasn't praying or really living Christianity in any other way, and given that people become what they do, how did I manage to resist that process for years on end?

Well, the answer is that I had a dirty little trick that would reliably quash that kind of thought if only for a while. And it could be done in half an hour tops. That trick was - tada - reading rabidly  atheist fora on the Internet. Thirty minutes at the then still extant forum  at Internet Infidels or later at reddit or in particularly hard cases Pharyngula would reliably crush any thought of those folks being on the right side.

One part of why this worked (the less interesting part for purposes of my present discussion) was that Internet atheists clearly didn't conform to their self image of superior rationality. For example, Jesus Mythicism is, if anything, scientifically less respectable than creationism, but still extremely popular with Internet atheists. This is clearly an arguments are soldiers thing. Now this isn't an argument against atheism any more than the existence of creationists is an argument against Christianity. But it does disrupt their narrative of atheism being a product of their superior rationality. If they were atheist because they were more rational, they actually would have to be more rational on average and that doesn't comport with the actual facts on the ground.  And Jesus Mythicism isn't an isolated example.  Load of Internet atheists also believe the Church thought the Earth was flat, inflate the number of inquisition victims by several orders of magnitude , etc. Basically the atheist creation myth is Enlightenment science escaping the authority trap, overcoming centuries of darkness and oppression caused by religion and ever since being involved in an irreconcilable conflict with the remnant of the dark forces it overcame in the beginning. And whatever its merits of that myth may be as a morality tale,  it is clearly worthless as history.

But the much more interesting part is that reading atheist fora nicely undermined atheism as a moral option. I used  their way of arguing to demonstrate to myself that they were not a group I would be comfortable aligning myself with.

Part of this was the vacuous moral philosophy of movement atheism. Loads of Internet atheists explain that they are "good without gods",  and often I believe them. Yup, lots of atheists are good people, or at least as good as people get given that we all are fallen. But that is not the question I'm really interested in. What I actually would want to know is how an atheist  can be good without Eupocrisy, or in other words how they can construct a coherent atheistic theory of morality. And for many of them I would also like to know how they propose to maintain their values on the social level given that they have  discarded others based on a discursive system that produces constant shifts but can only lift but not create moral obligations. Mainstream Internet atheist discourse is not only totally disinterested in that kind of question, it will also routinely misinterpret it as that straw-manny all atheists are evil argument.

But the other part was quite simply their way of arguing. For example the perfection of straw-manning. Not only is straw-manning their main mode of arguing to the point that one may wonder if those folks ever talked to a real life Christian, that straw-manning is also protected by the brilliantly evil meme of the Courtier's reply. Thus arises an epistemic bubble where ignorance is a virtue. But also the relentless mockery, the permanent accusations of stupidity the consistent refusal to differentiate between different versions of Christianity (which is like arguing against communism and calling it an argument against atheism), etc., etc.  Basically I would see their writing and imagine them with foamy mouthy. And then I would feel reassured that this was not a group I would want to align myself with.

Now let me make two very obvious points.

First, my trick was unfair and epistemologically unsound. Sturgeon's law practically guarantees it will be possible to find people arguing almost every proposition in that way. An atheist could easily pull the same trick by reading the right kind of Christian fora. I actually suspect many of them might be doing precisely this.  This method will reinforce basically every belief, which makes it totally unsuited to distinguish between true and false ones.

Second, my trick was unhealthy. Basically I was defining myself by opposition against something rather than by anything positive - ironically the main problem I see with the New Atheism. And in doing so I was building up a lot of disgust and resentment against other people and objectifying them as props. And I was running in an ever narrower circle of reading the same kind of bad stuff again and again and again. By entangling my identity with not being a specific kind of person I was slowly turning into that very kind of person.

So I absolutely do not recommend this method of squelching doubt.  It is unsound, evil, and, in the long run, counter-productive.

But my point is that it did work and that says something about that kind of argument: Basically trying to convince fence-sitters by mocking them and being  just generally mean is counter-productive and I know that from the experience of being that fence-sitter.

Next up: A much more effective atheist argumentation style (but it caught me only after its main window of opportunity had passed.)

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12 Responses to The counter-productiveness of mockery

  1. Yvain says:

    Yes, I can imagine that working. I've seen a lot of people do that and in fact, I've previously worried that in cases where only one side is easily available on the Internet (for example, there are anti-racists, but very few racists unless you look for them) it ends up turning people against anti-racism.

    Did you ever take a look at Luke Muehlhauser's blog? He seems really into constructing atheist theories of morality. I haven't done enough homework to know how good they are, but I'm usually impressed by his output.

    • Gilbert says:

      If he has a new and/or active blog no, and please point the way.

      I did look at Common Sense Atheism, but only when it was already in the process of winding down, so well after the phase I've been talking about in this last two posts. I found it via Unequally Yoked and then looked through the archives a bit but not really systematically. The desireism stuff gets some credit in my book for (a) actually taking the question serious,  (b) trying a new approach instead of adding epicycles on the clearly failed paradigm of utilitarianism, and (c) trying to get non-situational rules from a consequentialist basis, which would make the consequentalism naturalists desire compatible with some basic moral intuitions. That's the kind of feature set I would expect a viable atheist moral system to have if there was one. So yes, that's way above the usual Internet atheism and I would love to have a beer with a desireist.

      Now for the other shoe: I think desireism is a phlogiston theory of morality. If the minds of all  rapists always work like some people say they do (i.e. they specifically want non-consensual sex rather then wanting  sex without caring about consent either way), then the standard example unambiguously works and desireism can definitely conclude that rape is bad. But note how that is only one clear answer, to a very obvious question, and even then contingent on an empirical claim about psychology that I'm not quite sure of.

      But as soon as a desire is not specifically about thwarting an other desire, the question of which of two conflicting desires gets the desire-thwarting label becomes indeterminate. Basically that decision is a back-door through which one can import ones  moral intuitions into the theory without noticing it. And then "The desire to $immoral_thing is desire-thwarting" is a phrase that sounds like an explanation but really doesn't add any information. I think it's no coincidence Luke Muehlhauser never got around to applying the theory to real hard cases and the responses to the Naziland stuff were so lame. It always seems clear that desireism implies one's own moral position, because it has a subtle insert-your-position-here-slot. But it's basically impossible to prove it to someone who disagrees, because that would be equivalent to demonstrating it doesn't explain the opposite position, which is impossible, because it actually can explain almost everything.

  2. Eli says:

    "But my point is that it did work and that says something about that kind of argument: Basically trying to convince fence-sitters by mocking them and being  just generally mean is counter-productive and I know that from the experience of being that fence-sitter."

    Oh wow! So your experience as an unrepresentative sample of 1 allows you to generalize about everybody else on Earth? That's amazing!

    • Gilbert says:

      Well, I guess it depends on how unrepresentative I actually am, which in turn might depend on how exactly we understand "fence-sitter".

      I am aware that atheist confrontationists think they have good evidence on the effectiveness question and some later post of this series will explain why I don't consider it convincing. If you actually consider it very strong, considering me unrepresentative would indeed be a natural conclusion.

      But in the absence of such evidence (and acknowledging that I haven't yet given arguments for that absence) i think my experience actually is a good indicator of similar people's experience. Note that I don't just say that I was put off, I also show some specific mechanisms of being put off. I think those mechanisms are interactions of cognitive features already known  to be near universal, so showing a specific way they can interact does give people an understanding of the process by which it would happen.

      Basically, I  think the LARPing thing is a  good way  to go, so I'm offering some ideas about character development. My (past) character for now, and then some others that I think can be better understood after understanding mine. This does contain some evidence for people who are willing  to invest the necessary sympathy to extract it, but I know it's unlikely to convince an actually hostile audience and I'm not shooting at that.

      I know you don't like that kind of approach, so you probably won't get much out of this series. Or, to be honest, most of the rest of this blog.

      • Eli says:

        "But in the absence of such evidence (and acknowledging that I haven't yet given arguments for that absence) i think my experience actually is a good indicator of similar people's experience."

        Right, I sort of got that part. This is, however, a fairly basic cognitive bias that humans have.

         

        "Note that I don't just say that I was put off, I also show some specific mechanisms of being put off."

        Sure - and for all I know or care, those mechanisms are active in some subset of undecided people. Just because you aren't representative of the set doesn't mean that you can't be representative of a subset; in fact, everybody is representative of at least some subset of every group to which they belong. But when you make claims like, "trying to convince fence-sitters by mocking them and being  just generally mean is counter-productive," you're making a fairly sweeping claim.

        "I know you don't like that kind of approach, so you probably won't get much out of this series. Or, to be honest, most of the rest of this blog."

        This confuses me, this statement. Do you think that I should spend my time only on those ideas that I'm (or believe myself to be) likely to profit from? I certainly don't see things that way. Or do you think that I'm unlikely to learn from those things I dislike? That doesn't make much sense, either.

  3. Joe says:

     

    Im looking forward to this series because I used to deal with doubt in much the same way you're describing,  but with protestant fora.  I soon realized that I was just barely living as a catholic just to prove that I wasn't one of "them".  I thought the solution was to enter religious life. That didn't work because with the absence of faith I clung to the rules and ended up thinking and acting like a Pharisee.  I came to my senses by what many would call mockery.  I  came to know that the faith was about relationship with Christ and character building not a servile loyalty to rules.  I guess thats what I might disagree with you here I think mocking can be an affective tactic to help someone change their ways and thinking.  It certainly isn't an argument you're right about that,  but it helped me a lot.

    • Gilbert says:

      Very interesting. This is fairly private stuff, so I don't want to press you, but if you're comfortable sharing I would be very interested in the details. I'm not trying to deny your experience, but at the moment I don't understand how it could help you. Who did the mocking with what intention and how did that make you change your thinking? Again, it's totally fine if you don't want to be specific, I'm just nosy.

  4. Joe says:

    Well imagine the people you love and respect the most suddenly turn on you, and start to praise you with fake praise. They insert subtle and esoteric insults concerning aspects of your character and personality. This of course would be painful but hopefully you would realize that most of the time the defects your friends are mocking are real and you would like to change that about yourself. Mocking can tenderize the conscience. It could help you see the gravity of you character flaws.

  5. MugaSofer says:

    "Mainstream Internet atheist discourse is not only totally disinterested in that kind of question, it will also routinely misinterpret it as that straw-manny all atheists are evil argument."

     

    Have you by any chance read Yvain's excellent LJ post on this problem?

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