I get email from Philip Skell

The creationist chemist Philip Skell (see below) simply won’t leave me alone.  Yesterday he sent me an email proving that atheism is illogical.  His “logic” is amusing, and alert readers may want to entertain themselves by posing a hypothetical refutation to what follows (I don’t feel bad about posting this because Skell sent it as a mass mailing to about 20 people):

Date: Wed, 18 Mar 2009 14:27:21 -0700
From: Phil Skell

Subject: it’s not logical to be an atheist (????)

Some years ago I attended an event jointly run by the Humanists and Skeptics. One of the professors, who now heads up the science department of a major university, enjoyed a discussion we were having earlier and asked me to join him to continue our discussion at a post meeting dinner. I was the lone theist and ID advocate in a den of hard core evolutionist and skeptics. (Daniel in the lion’s den, literally) – It was a delight, and the dinner was free. I was placed at the end of the table with the professor on one side and a noted paleontologist on the other (who heads up the national history department of a National Museum). The conversation went something like this:
John; Professor, do you believe there is a God.

Professor: No! I’m an atheist.

John: How much knowledge do you have? Einstein said he had less than 1% of available knowledge. How do you think you compare to Einstein? Would you know more or less.

Professor: I would have to say I know less than Einstein.

John: So there’s over 99% of available knowledge you don’t have. Is that right?

Professor: Yes! That right.

John: So how can you say there is no God unless you know everything there is to know – you can’t can you?

Professor: No! You can’t.

John: You can’t logically be an atheist so you must be either a soft boiled or a hard boiled agnostic.

Professor: What’s the difference?

John: Well a hard boiled agnostic says that you can never know whether God exists or not.and..

Professor: Yes! Then I would have to say that I’m a hard boiled agnostic. I would say you can never know whether God exists or not.

John: But unless you know all there is to know, how can you say that you can never know.

Professor: I can’t really, can I.

John: No! So you must be a soft boiled agnostic.

Professor: What’s a soft boiled agnostic?

.John: Someone who just doesn’t really know for sure. Would that be you, then?

Professor: Yes! I guess so.

At this point the leading paleontologist sitting on the other side of me, who had earlier been distracted, interjected.

Paleontologist: What are you two talking about.

Professor: Whether God exists or not.

Paleontologist: I would have to say that I am agnostic or an atheist.

Professor: it’s not logical to be an atheist.

22 Comments

  1. Loc
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 9:33 am | Permalink

    I think he has the burden of proof on the wrong subjects.

  2. Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:01 am | Permalink

    By the same reasoning it’s not logical to be a theist either. And as Skell identifies himself as a theist, by trumpeting this argument he’s trumpeting his own illogicality.

  3. Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:10 am | Permalink

    I like how, according to this argument, you have to know everything there is to know in order to know that god exists or not. And playing the Einstein card is always fun as well.

    I also like how, according to the story, the professor is a half-wit who immediately flips his opinion, twice, when pressed with conflict.

    The entire anecdote is very biblical in its approach and its attack on rationalism.

  4. Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    Along those lines I believe it is much more probable that no god exists rather than a god existing that is constrained to several babylonian myths wrapped together for the use of several nomadic middle eastern tribes and a few random contradictory accounts of the life of a man who died roughly 2000 years ago.

    Thus Christianity is illogical. And the paleontologist to the left of me heartily agrees.

    Now back to the real topic at hand. Instead of discussing the scientific accuracy of ID with a room full of scientists, he goes on about random philosophical conversations. I wonder why THAT is.

  5. Jeremy
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:38 am | Permalink

    I think the easiest refutation would be to simply delete “God” and replace it with “Yeti”, “Flying Spaghetti Monster” or perhaps “Great Man-Bear-Pig”, and see if the “logic” appeared as comforting to him.

    And I don’t buy the story for a second. I’d bet my house that he simply made up the story, and that the almost-name-dropping is a fabrication. (Sigh)

    On a positive note, this blog is GREAT!

  6. Occam
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:44 am | Permalink

    Once again, the logical structure of Skell’s argument belongs to a class best exemplified by the paradigm:
    “Orange trees are in full bloom in California, but it’s Thursday in New York.”

    Pascal’s Wager was but a slightly flawed logical gem by comparison.

    BTW, readers who wish to explore this theme further might want to google “Kupczyński’s Wager”. Mirth and insight guaranteed (I bet my Eternal Life on it…)

    In the Fawlty Towers of Logic, Prof. Skell deserves a floor unto himself.

  7. NewEnglandBob
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Burden of proof? There is nothing there to even discuss. That so-called discussion has no logic to it, no facts, no evidence, no patterns of thinking that lead from premises to conclusions.

    All I see is word play.

  8. SeanK
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    By the same logic, does that make John a hard-bioled thiest? Assuming that he too has less knowledge than Einstein, there would be no way know for sure if God existed given the knowledge he has.

  9. charlesincharge
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    This is basically a recycled version of something idiotic Ray Comfort came up with.

    Here’s a fun response:

  10. Magnifico Giganticus
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I would have said I have no way of knowing if I know more or less than Einstein since I do not know what he knew. Then maybe I’d point out that Einstein’s 1% as our standard is flawed since he would have had to know everything in order to know what percentage of everything he knew. It could go on and on from there. Man! That sounds like a lot of fun! Like a cat with a ball of yarn.

  11. Dago Red
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    My only objection is its a pretty unsophisticated view of how logic and reason actually inform us when it comes to analyzing the “big” (and currently unanswerable) questions in life.

    While I don’t think his argument here is wrong, something tells me he is completely unaware he is merely “the kettle calling the pot black”. His point applies equally well to to the theist position, thus, we all must be agnostics, including him, if we are to accept it.

    It’s not a very insightful point (and even hints at being postmodernist), and perhaps he would have realized its flaws if he hadn’t instead focused his energy on framing it as a hackneyed Socratic dialogue. It merely turned it into a “pig in lipstick” presentation.

  12. Posted March 19, 2009 at 1:06 pm | Permalink

    From the fictional dialogue:

    ohn; Professor, do you believe there is a God.

    Professor: No! I’m an atheist.

    John: How much knowledge do you have? Einstein said he had less than 1% of available knowledge. How do you think you compare to Einstein? Would you know more or less.

    Professor: I would have to say I know less than Einstein.

    John: So there’s over 99% of available knowledge you don’t have. Is that right?

    Professor: Yes! That right.

    John: So how can you say there is no God unless you know everything there is to know – you can’t can you?

    Note the shift from the initial assertion, which is about the Professor’s belief that there is no God, to the straw man question in the last sentence (“So how can you say there is no God …?”). The first is a statement about one’s state of mind — a belief; the second is a knowledge claim about the universe (or wherever God purportedly lives).

    I’m an atheist, in the sense that I don’t believe there is a god. That is not a claim about the universe; it’s a statement about my beliefs. So Skell’s “logical” argument depends on switching horses in midstream; everything that follows the last sentence quoted above is a non sequitur.

  13. Posted March 19, 2009 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    So many fallacies . . .

    “How much knowledge do you have?”

    Nonsensical question. You might as well ask how much height I have, or how much handsomeness I have.

    “Einstein said he had less than 1% of available knowledge.”

    Doesn’t sound anything like what Einstein would say. Did you make that up?

    “How do you think you compare to Einstein? Would you know more or less.”

    More or less what? He knew more about math and physics than I, and I know more about my own specialties than he. What does this have to do with my belief in God?

    “So how can you say there is no God unless you know everything there is to know – you can’t can you?”

    I never *said* there is no God. I said I don’t *believe* there is a God. Belief and knowledge are two different methods of thinking. Why are you changing in mid-argument?

    “But unless you know all there is to know, how can you say that you can never know.”

    Of course not. One can have all knowledge in the universe and still not know logical contradictions, such as how a man can conceive his own father. If “God” is illogically defined, such as a being who is outside of space and time but still operates *within* space and time, then I can know that God can’t possibly exist, whether I know everything or not.

    “Someone who just doesn’t really know for sure. Would that be you, then?”

    No. My standard response:
    A) I don’t know if God exists
    B) I don’t believe that *your* God exists.
    C) I believe that no God exists.

    Rather than try to snare me in wordplay, why not present evidence that God exists. Then we’ll *both* know the answer, won’t we?

  14. Pdiff
    Posted March 19, 2009 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

    Skell: ““Einstein said he had less than 1% of available knowledge.”

    Tommy Holland: “Doesn’t sound anything like what Einstein would say. Did you make that up?”

    Indeed, a cursory search on this phrase, variations there of, and the general idea comes up with zip.

    Skell is blowing it out of his ass, here. I would agree that he is completely making up this story, which would explain why the mysterious “Professor X” falls into his trap of illogic so easily.

    Pdiff

  15. Posted March 19, 2009 at 4:23 pm | Permalink

    But to be an atheist is not a question of knowing, it’s a question of belief – or more specifically the absence of belief. I don’t know God doesn’t exist, I just have no reason to believe that God does exist… just as I have no reason to believe that Thor, Ra, Brahman, Zeus, or The Giant Rainbow Serpent exist. I don’t see a reason to believe in any of them so I don’t believe in any of them, hence I’m an atheist.

    It’s a dirty trap of a theist to take the only form of atheism as strong atheism and then turn it into a question of knowledge rather than a question of belief.

  16. Posted March 19, 2009 at 4:39 pm | Permalink

    Someone needs to explain to Philip Skell what “literally” means.

  17. Flea
    Posted March 20, 2009 at 3:26 am | Permalink

    Refutation?
    This is idiotic.

  18. Posted March 20, 2009 at 7:36 am | Permalink

    Also unlike Theism, Atheism is falsifiable. Any manifest and scientifically verifiable act of god would do. Start bringing some biblical scale miracles down upon the halls of the royal society. Have jinn move books around around in mid air during a major atheist conference. It’s not like Biblical, Koranic or other sources have no precedent for this.

    How do you prove an non universally manifesting, capricious God wrong?

    Sigh, I suppose it’s just a defense mechanism on his part. His idea of god is so out of touch with reality that he needs to resort to this to get his point across. Poor guy.

  19. Notagod
    Posted March 21, 2009 at 9:38 pm | Permalink

    creationist chemist Philip Skel

    Using the same logic, it would make Skel a liar for jesus. No matter what he thinks he has found to support his creationism, none of it proves that it couldn’t have happened naturally. Even if only 1% of all possible knowledge is known, 100% of that knowledge supports natural processes. To suppose that somewhere in the remaining 99% there is a non-natural occurrence would be a logical fallacy.

  20. Michael Heath
    Posted March 23, 2009 at 4:42 am | Permalink

    I don’t think an actual conversation ever took place. This appears to be a fantasized conversation created by someone who has some serious critical thinking deficiencies.

    I did appreciate previous commenters breaking down the logical fallacies.

  21. Sili
    Posted April 19, 2009 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Pity he didn’t use the argument from authority.

    Personally I love the fact that while Newton was a theist, he was very much a heretic according to christianity. So I’d love to get asked if I thought I was smarter than Newton. Just turn it around, and if the ‘apologist’ in question admits to not being smarter than Newton, then commend them on being brave for rejecting the divinity of Jesus.

    Yes, I know that’s just a game of gotcha, but sometimes they can be fun too.

  22. Jonn Mero
    Posted December 31, 2009 at 12:48 pm | Permalink

    Poor sad sod, badly afflicted by the grey matter-killing disease called ‘religion’.
    A very far gone case too.


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