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March 23, 2010

Comments

Hmmm... I've seen variations of the chalk story in Christian circles, but I have never heard any actual self-proclaimed atheist say anything so silly.

Christians talking with someone who calls themselves an 'atheist' may want to find out more about what that person means by the term. I don't know any that would say they can 'prove' there is no god of any sort... I guess they would be at one extreme of the atheism spectrum.

At the other extreme would be those who are just saying they are "not theists", that they don't believe Islam, Judaism, Mormonism, Christianity, etc. are what they claim to be, and that the God portrayed in them doesn't match what they observe.

I'm with Outsider on this one. I've never, ever, ever seen or heard an atheist use an argument like that.

I once heard that the Soviets told young schoolchildren, "If there's a God, ask Him for ice cream." When no ice cream immediately materialized, they said, "Now ask Mother Russia for ice cream," whereupon they carried in tubs of ice cream and gave every child a bowlful. "See," they told the children, "We have proved there's no God."

Sounds fake.

http://www.snopes.com/religion/chalk.asp

oh Jon!

This is where Greg identifies this 'certain professor' or admits he cannot. If the latter it's ok - this can happen to anyone. I've pointed two to snopes in the last two weeks. One was not the sort at all to need it often. The other I can't say.

RonH

Even so, it's not like this is so far-fetched. I saw George Carlin repeatedly do a bit on stage where he says:

"If there is a god, I challenge him right now to strike this audience dead!"

(laughter)

"OK, I'll raise the bar. If there is a god, I challenge him to strike me dead!"

(pause)

"See - there is no god."

----------
All things being equal, the chalk challenge, whether real or theoretical, is not really different from Carlin's bit, and the answer is really the same.

Even so...the event in question involving the philosophy professor is apparently fictitious.

If the "chalk challenge" was never made, then it's not "theoretical", instead, it's non-existent. There's a difference.

It's pretty obvious to me that Greg is not intending to present an actual event, but to illustrate a line of reasoning. As such, the appeals to snopes miss the point.

The line of reasoning is very real indeed.

Gordon Stein used essentially the same argument in the celebrated Bahnsen-Stein debate at UC Irvine. In Stein's case, the challenge was for God to lift a podium five feet in the air for one minute. Bahnsen did not call his bluff in the way that Greg suggests above. But he certainly could have.

I've read this somewhere before. Is this from the Tactics book?

“It's pretty obvious to me that Greg is not intending to present an actual event, but to illustrate a line of reasoning.”

Well, Greg, are you going to let us know what your intent really was here? Or do we just have to guess?

So, in future, it’s ok if I say “a Christian minister stood up in front of his congregation and said (fill in the blank)”, and the fact that the minister doesn’t exist and that the non-existent minister never said what I claimed he said…doesn’t matter? I can just make stuff up, as long as it "illustrates a line of reasoning"? Well, this is indeed liberating.

I think that this freedom to invent events, as long as it “illustrates a line of reasoning” does go a long way to explaining much of what is found in the NT. I now see that a described event need not actually have happened, as long as describing the non-existent event “illustrates a line of reasoning”.

Actually, my brother's sister-in-law knows the very atheist professor of philosophy involved. He is very old now and wishes to remain anonymous. However, he says that he didn't pull the chalk stunt so much to prove that God doesn't exist as to illustrate the idea of divine hiddenness to a room full of freshmen.

RonH

Joe, do you understand genre? Greg is not relating a historical event (something that would not begin with "a certain professor"), he's presenting a thought exercise in order to teach people how to think and how to respond to challenges.

This piece from our archives was written years ago when the email was being widely circulated. Everybody knew it was an internet story. He used the story everyone was familiar with to illustrate a way to respond to this type of challenge which does happen, as WisdomLover pointed out.

And yes if you were to say, "A certain Christian did X, Y, Z. If you ever encounter something like this, here's how to respond," then anyone who interpreted you as telling us about a specific person who did something would be completely missing the point.

Now, if Greg were to tell the story the way the email told the story (i.e., "This is a true story about a professor at USC who used to do this," etc.), that would indicate a whole different thing.

Interesting. Greg makes up a story that certainly appears to convey historical truths, but in fact he's just telling a story to illustrate a point. Subsequent readers mistakenly take Greg to be relating historical information. Sounds like a certain gospel I've heard of.

Everybody knew it was an internet story.

So it was an internet story - an urban legend - at the same time that everyone knew it was an internet story - an urban legend. I didn't know that.

Anyway as I said the professor is real. My brother's sister-in-law knows him and he wants to know if Greg understands genres.

Steve,

Your mention of Carlin reminds me of this

RonH

Joe, do you understand genre?"

Do you understand that it was far from clear if Greg was related an actual event or just creating straw men? Do you understand that it was far from clear that this was just a "thought exercise"? Maybe the entire NT is just a "thought exercise", and that historical reality is not nearly as important as "illustrating a line of reasoning".

How am I supposed to know that this is "an internet story"? Swear to Zeus, when I read this, I really assumed that there was a real professor somewhere who did this in class. I really did. How am I supposed to know otherwise?

And why the hell doesn't Greg speak for himself?

Amy,

Joe said, "it was far from clear if Greg was relat[ing] an actual event."

It sounds like you say that, as it turns out, Greg did not believe the story. Fine that was Greg's state of mind. But did he make it clear that others shouldn't believe the story?

I would say No, he didn't make it clear. For instance he says, "If you confront anyone who tries this silly trick, here's how to respond..." Sounds like he expects people to actually encounter the silly trick. Why not from philosophy professors? (I'll discount it if it is pulled by George Carlin; I agree with Jon Stewart.)

You seem to say everyone should know he doesn't intend for others to believe the story because he doesn't begin it by saying something like, "This is a true story..."

Do we have to say "This is a true story..." before everything we say that we expect people to believe? Browse Snopes. You'll see that not all tellings of urban legends come with explicit "this is true" claims.

Again, the professor, according to my brother's sister-in-law, says he told the story just to get his students to consider asking themselves why God, if He is there, doesn't seem to do anything.

RonH

The talk about whether the story is true or not is deeply silly. As Ron has noted the story goes back pretty far (I think to the 1920s, but read the Snopes article...it has the details).

But none of that matters.

To see that, replace the first sentence of Greg's article:

"A certain atheist professor of philosophy had as a primary goal to prove to his students God couldn't exist."

With this sentence:

"Imagine an atheist professor of philosophy who had as a primary goal to prove to his students God couldn't exist."

Now tell me what difference it makes.

The answer, of course, is "none at all".

The only thing that matters is that this line of argument from the imaginary atheist is

a) common (as I said before, see the Stein-Bahnsen debate for a real-life example) AND

b) demonstrably ridiculous.

And, BTW, a story that begins with

"A certain X..."

Is almost always a thought experiment about X's.

Agreed.

And WL, regarding your second comment, it would be similarly silly to charge Jesus with misleading people every time he told a parable and asked people to respond.

WL,

The talk about whether the story is true or not is deeply silly.

It may seem deeply silly if the truth about the matter is deeply unimportant to you as it might be if the story purports to support something you already believe.

To be clear: I think the professor's stunt is a bad argument that God doesn't exist. But consider the lifetime of observation that allows the professor and the audience to know the outcome of the experiment in advance.

And, BTW, a story that begins with

"A certain X..."

Is almost always a thought experiment about X's.

I doubt it. You have a reference? How about this example: "Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany" ? (John 11:1 ESV)

RonH

I think I understand now.

It doesn't matter if something is imaginary or real. It doesn't matter if a described event actually occurred or not. One can invent as needed and put words in mouths as needed. And there is no need to clarify whether or not someone actually did or said as described.

I guess this is all part of that objective morality you all like to talk about. I admit that I didn't think that this would include playing fast and loose with the truth. However, this tendency to confuse imagination with reality does explain much of the New Testament.

("It would be similarly silly to charge Jesus with misleading people every time he told a parable."

But it would not be silly to charge Jesus with creating massive confusion with fictitious stories.)

So, Joe, Ron, suppose I began a story with the following phrase:

Three men, a priest, a pastor and a rabbi met in a bar and...

Are you telling me that you would really think I was attempting to recount a factual event?

"So, Joe, Ron, suppose I began a story with the following phrase:

Three men, a priest, a pastor and a rabbi met in a bar and..."

So, now you're saying that
Greg was intending to tell a joke?

No, I'm saying that Greg was presenting a thought experiment and the locutions he used made that crystal clear. In the same way, the locutions involved in the case of the three men make it crystal clear that I am telling a joke.

This is true even though Greg never said "This is a thought experiment," just as I never said, "This is a joke."

Sorry, but it wasn't crystal clear. Not at all. And it's the obligation of the writer to be as clear as possible. Sorry, but I'm not up to date on the relevant locutions. I honestly thought that Greg was relating an actual incident, and it's not my obligation to keep up with every fake internet story that's out there. Maybe the problem is that I have a job in which I try to be as clear and accurate as I can be when I present information to others. So, I expect the same of others.

He could have made it crystal clear that he was making this up, but he didn't. He could have said that this was from an internet scam, but didn’t. He could have said that this was a hypothetical situation, but he didn't. He could have said "imagine", but didn't. Why not? Why create a thought experiment in which one might easily conclude an actual professor had really made this argument?

And what was the purpose of putting the fictitious words specifically in the mouth of an "atheist professor of philosophy" when any old imaginary character would serve just as well? Why make the fictitious character a professor? This makes this more than just a “thought experiment”. This reminds me of the dreadful Jack Chick tracts where some Christian kid takes on a ridiculous caricature of a biology professor. It seems to me that this is where a failure to clarify turns into something less admirable, and even deliberately misleading. Is this an example of “objective morality” in action?

Joe,

It wasn't crystal clear to me either. When I first read the first line I thought maybe the professor's name was omitted to avoid making the post a personal attack. The story sounded vaguely familiar but if I'd known it was a myth at some point, I'd forgotten. I was a little embarrassed - privately - when I saw Jon's link to snopes.

This whole thing reminds me of the attitude that the truth about the age of the earth doesn't matter so long as Christians stand together against the likes of Jeffry Dahlmer (and me I guess) when it comes to evolution.

RonH

Ron,

I'd like to return to a point you made earlier, when you brought up the locution "A certain man..." in connection with a story about Lazarus of Bethany.

I readily admit that that story is intended as factual by the author. However, there is an important qualification we find there, namely, the story begins "A certain man, Lazarus of Bethany,...". In other words, the story clearly identifies who this certain man is.

But the phrase "a certain X" is also used to present a number of Jesus' parables. And it is the presence of that phrase that makes it so clear that it is a parable. For example,

"A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead..."

Was Jesus intending to recount a true story about a real victim of crime and a real Good Samaritan, or telling a parable?

"Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both..."

Was Jesus intending to recount a true story about a real moneylender, or telling a parable?

"The ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop. He thought to himself, 'What shall I do? I have no place to store my crops.'

"Then he said, 'This is what I'll do. I will tear down my barns and build bigger ones..."

Was Jesus intending to recount a true story about a real foolish rich man with his real fertile fields, or telling a parable?

"In a certain town there was a judge who neither feared God nor cared about men. And there was a widow in that town who kept coming to him with the plea, 'Grant me justice against my adversary.'..."

Was Jesus intending to recount a true story about a real unrighteous judge in a real town, or telling a parable?

Obviously, I could go on a bit.

Now clearly, Jesus didn't say any of these things. Not really. This is because Jesus spoke in Aramaic. But the general point is still true, and is more-or-less language independent, that when we indicate that there was an X that did Y and we make no effort to specifically name the X we have in mind, we are very often intending to present an illustration, a supposition or a hypothetical. In essence, we are saying something like, "There was an X that did Y. Which X? I don't care. Pick one." This move even shows up in systems of formal logic. When you use the method of natural deduction to evaluate arguments, the rule of Existential Elimination expresses this point.

Sometimes, of course, we will use this locution when we just don't know a name or identifier for X. As with all linguistic content, as long as the author has met his communicative burden, it is ultimately up to a charitable reader to figure it out from context. Greg has more than met his communicative burden in the article above.

And even if he hadn't, we are well past that now in this thread. OK, so you didn't get it that Greg was posing a thought experiment. And it's all Greg's fault.

Fine.

Are you looking for an apology from Greg or something? It all comes down to a great big "So what?"

If you get it now, the only question is whether you are ready to defend the type of argument posed, in the story, by the hypothetical atheist professor and, in real life, by a heck of a lot of real atheists? Or are you ready to agree that it's a lousy argument?

"Are you looking for an apology from Greg or something?"

Actually, I'd settle for any words of any kind from Greg. We're all trying to interpret what Greg wrote. But only Greg knows what he meant and why he chose the words that he chose. Greg? You out there, buddy?

"So what?"

So, why not make everything clear from the start? Look at how many words you needed to explain why we should not have interpreted the story as describing an actual event. If you have to work that hard, something is wrong here. And why make the fictitious atheist "an atheist professor of philosophy"?

Oh, and I believe that Ron already said that this was a bad argument. It's a lot like the problem of the hypothesis that God hears prayers. Since any possible outcome can be interpreted as evidence that God hears prayers, and no observation will ever be taken as proof that God does not hear prayers, the hypothesis that God hears prayers is totally untestable and pointless.

Joe-

"I believe that Ron already said that this was a bad argument."

Ah yes! I see Ron's agreement that it is a bad argument. So, good for Ron. I take it that you agree with Ron on that point, so good for you too.

"It's a lot like the problem of the hypothesis that God hears prayers."

I agree that the 'answered prayers' argument is, as a rule, pretty ghastly. But the logical situation is different. The main problem with the answered prayers argument is that the examples given of answered prayer are usually pretty lame, e.g., "I prayed for a parking space and at that very moment someone pulled out of a space right in front of me! Praise the Lord! Hallelujah!"

Still, I suspect that if the right sort of prayer got the right sort of answer, e.g. "Please don't let the asteroid hit the earth" (followed by the asteroid's mysterious reversal of direction), that might count as evidence for the existence of God. At least it would be evidence that there is a very powerful being who listens to people.

On the other hand, God's refusal to answer some prayer, e.g. "Please don't let the chalk break", proves nothing of any importance.

"I take it that you agree with Ron on that point.."

Yes, it's a bad argument. Now, can we also agree that the manner in which the argument was presented does matter? Was it a good thing to introduce a discussion of the argument in a manner that was unclear and deceptive? Do the ends justify the means?

"On the other hand, God's refusal to answer some prayer, e.g. "Please don't let the chalk break", proves nothing of any importance."

That's right. No outcome of any kind is of any importance, because there is no possible observation that would disprove the claim that God answers prayer. Personally, I don't look at this as a positive thing, because it means that if God doesn't hear prayers, there is no way to know that we are wrong when we assume that God hears. So, I guess that belief in prayer is just a matter of subjective taste. Personally, it seems to me that it's just as likely that the chalk breaks because one is listening, but I understand the appeal of believing otherwise.

"Now, can we also agree that the manner in which the argument was presented does matter?"

Well, it won't make an invalid argument valid, if that's what you mean. Nor will it make a false premise true. Of course, we should, ceteris paribus, prefer a more clear presentation to a less clear one.

"Was it a good thing to introduce a discussion of the argument in a manner that was unclear and deceptive? Do the ends justify the means?"

We disagree about whether it was unclear. But I think we can all be charitable enough, can't we, to say that Greg was not intending to lead you to a false belief. As such, I don't think it was deceptive, even if it was unclear. And since there was no intent to deceive, the question of whether the ends justify the means is not germane either.

"Personally, it seems to me that it's just as likely that the chalk breaks because one is listening"

I'm not quite following this one. Are you saying that God does hear the prayer, "Please don't let the chalk break", and refuses to answer because He heard it? (I'm not saying that that's a crazy idea, by the way. If I were God--and thank God I'm not--I would probably also refuse to answer such ridiculous prayers.)

Oops. Typo. Meant to write "because no one is listening". Hope that makes more sense.

I suppose that deception is in the eye of the beholder. I'd still like to know why the argument was specifically placed in the mouth of an "atheist professor of philosophy" as opposed to any other fictitious character.

"I'd still like to know why the argument was specifically placed in the mouth of an "atheist professor of philosophy" as opposed to any other fictitious character."

Well...I think we can agree that the challenge should come from an atheist. And he is using chalk as a prop. So it's probably not an atheist sommelier. A professor seems much more likely (though I suppose you could have an atheist chalk salesman).

And, if you think about what kind of prof is most likely to be holding forth on the existence of God, Philosophy profs are more likely to be near the top of the list than, say, professors of Economics or Soils Engineering (or chalk salesmen for that matter).

The argument in question could be made in an infinite number of ways. For example, someone already cited George Carlin, and Carlin did not use chalk. You cited an example involving a podium.

There no need to use chalk at all, no need to place the scene in a classroom, no reason to make the atheist a professor. So why make the story about chalk and a professor? Given that this was entirely invented, the possibilities were endless, so one has to wonder about the choices that were made in this scam.

In other words, why did Greg chose this particular piece of fiction to introduce the argument and why present this fiction in such a way that it might be interpreted as a real event?

Well, coming at it from a different direction, if you tried to decide who would be most likely to be holding forth on the existence of God, an atheist professor seems more likely than, say, an atheist gardener. And given that it's a professor, chalk is a likely prop.

So I guess what I'm saying is that it's easier to paint a mental image of an atheist philosophy prof making the argument in question by dropping a piece of chalk than it is to paint a picture of an atheist gardener making the argument by dropping a teacup.

The cases of George Carlin and Gordon Stein were chosen to point out that, yes, real-world atheists really do use this kind of argument. I was present at the Bahnsen-Stein debate (OK, I'm old), so I actually heard a prominent atheist, in the wild, use the kind of argument that Greg is criticizing.

"Real-world atheists really do use this kind of argument."

Then why not use real-world examples?

Ok, I see that you're happy to rationalize this and make what ever excuses are needed. Ends justify the means. Of course, the only one who really knows is Greg.

Hey, Greggers. You there?

Oh yes, since this is such a crucial and meaningful debate, Greg has stopped all his work and is for the first time reading the comments on this blog. Sheesh. You think I'd bother him with this silliness?

But I'll help you out, Joe, and try to post something truly controversial soon so that you don't have to try so hard to find something to argue about here.

Sorry to hear that Greg considers it "silly" when someone notes that he has posted something unclear and deceptive. It may be a minor matter, but it is not without its significance. But I understand that such things are beneath the glory, the power and the greatness that is Greg.

However, I'm glad that you are always ready to step in to do the great man's dirty work. It reminds me of your willingness to do the dirty work of justifying slavery and genocide. It appears that nothing is beneath you. Well, someone has to do these jobs, I suppose.

The initial error in this post was a minor one. But what was far more interesting and informative was the response when the error to pointed out. Ane what was really fascinating was the lack of response from the original poster. As they say, it's not the crime, it's the cover-up that matters.

WL,

I find it in a way embarrassing to get sent to snopes. I have friends who are the same way.

In this circle you are expected to protect your friends with caveats like, "I need to check this but..." or "I think what the article said was..."

The reason? We care about knowing and telling the truth. We don't want to be sent to snopes or be responsible for getting each other sent there. When I meet someone that understands this I feel I have met a brother.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=piuoGb-Nhfw&feature=fvw

WL

Ron-

Well that youtube bit is a twist on the story. I doubt that it's any truer than the original. Of course, Greg never endorsed the youtube bit.

And again, the point of the story Greg related is not its truth. Its that it clearly illustrates a line of reasoning along with the fatal flaw in that line of reasoning.

Joe-

"It reminds me of your willingness to do the dirty work of justifying slavery and genocide. It appears that nothing is beneath you."

"it's not the crime, it's the cover-up that matters."

Oh good heavens! These have to be the silliest comments posted on this blog in a good long time. Why not just compare Greg's and Amy's tactics to those of Adolph Hitler. That way, we can invoke Godwin's Law on this thread and be done with it.

All I wanted was for Greg to speak for himself. That would have ended this around the tenth comment. Guess I asked for too much.

"The point of the story Greg related is not its truth."

Oh, and that's the other thing I was looking for. The truth. Again, I expected too much.

>>Ane what was really fascinating was the lack of response from the original poster.

Joe, as I noted earlier, this is a piece from our archives. Greg wrote this about ten years ago, and he probably doesn't even know that Melinda posted it for him. He does not read the comments on this blog. So it's no strange thing at all that he didn't respond.

I have at rare times in the past, when controversy has arisen, notified Greg of some comments, and he has responded. In this case I have not done so, not because of a "cover up," but because I thought WisdomLover's very first comment adequate to explain this.

In order to put this thing to rest, I followed up on an earlier comment on this thread that mentioned that this was in the Tactics book. It is. Here's the footnote attached to it:

This tale is almost certainly an urban legend. I include it for two reasons. First, even if apocryphal, it still illustrates this tactic well. Second, this story has circulated so widely that you might encounter this "proof" of atheism and need a response.

There. Now you have it from Greg.

"Greg wrote this about ten years ago, and he probably doesn't even know that Melinda posted it for him. He does not read the comments on this blog."

So...now you tell me this? Four days after I asked why Greg doesn't speak for himself? Now we get the "footnote" which says that the story isn't true? This would have been very useful to know four days ago. I would say better late than never, but at this point, I'm not sure that's so.

And truth is made clear in a "footnote", but not in the main body of the text? I would have thought that it was critically important to make it clear what is true and what is false. But I have learned from this episode that the truth really doesn't matter.

I have say that I'm surprised that postings are made with Greg's name attached when Greg is unaware of this and does not read the comments. Personally, when words have my name attached to them, I would like to know about it. I consider myself responsible for anything with my name attached and responsible for any errors in words attributed to me. I don't think that I would not appreciate it if someone put my name on something when I was not aware if it. But to each his own, I guess.

WL, this is certainly not silly. If lying is a wrong then there is an obligation avoid spreading untruths by accident or neglect as well. Accidents of this kind can't be eliminated. But if lying is a wrong there is also an obligation to acknowledge and learn from those accidents.

If that's not the way things go here - if the truth makes so little difference - why not just go to youtube and watch stuff like the rubbish video I posted a link to above?

Now, thanks to Amy, we know Greg doubts the truth of the story.

So why did the original post not indicate that?

It could be the archived piece didn't indicate any doubt because Greg's doubts about the story came more recently.

It could be the archived piece did indicate Greg's doubt but Melinda omitted that part.

Just wondering,
RonH

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