Exposing PseudoAstronomy

November 25, 2009

Logical Fallacies: The Non Sequitur


Introduction

In my continuing series on logical fallacies that, once completed, will be organized into a somewhat methodical outline and links posted at the top of all relevant posts, I’m going to now address the incredibly common “Non sequitur” fallacy.

What Is the Non Sequitur Fallacy?

The phrase, “non sequitur,” is Latin, and it literally translates as, “It does not follow.” And like most logical fallacies, it really means just that: The non sequitur fallacy is when any rebuttal is given that, well, just has nothing to do with the original claim. In that sense, many logical fallacies could be non sequiturs, such as the Straw Man, but this post is really about the broad, more obvious type rather than sub-types.

Example of a Non Sequitur from Young-Earth Creationism

I’ve been wanting to bring this in for awhile, an example from Kent Hovind, possibly better known as “Dr. Dino,” and definitely better known now as the, “I’m-an-employee-of-God-so-I-don’t-have-to-pay-taxes” guy who’s serving a 10-year prison sentence, with his wife, for tax evasion.

Anyway, in Hovind’s very long video lecture series on young-Earth creationism (YEC), which I have watched over 10 hours of, he makes several examples of this fallacy. One of them is when he is discussing ages of fossils, specifically within the context of how radioactive dating methods work.

Hovind makes a rather interesting claim when he is trying to make the point that radioactive dating methods don’t work, and they don’t work to the point that “even scientists” won’t use them. One of the many examples is that he says fossils are NOT dated by radiocarbon methods.

*Gasp!* But how could this be!? Surely, geologists would use carbon-14 dating methods to determine how old a fossil is, like a dinosaur, right? And if they don’t, then how can we, the common citizen, trust that carbon-14 is a valid method? And if carbon-14 doesn’t work, then why should we trust anything else that those scientists say!?

This is probably what Hovind wants you to think. However, the claim that we don’t date fossils through radiocarbon methods is perfectly true, but a perfect non sequitur. Pointing out that we don’t use the decay of carbon-14 into nitrogen-14 is like pointing out that a repairman won’t use a hammer to apply paint. It’s completely base and unnecessary.

Why? Because fossils don’t contain carbon. A fossil is formed when minerals replace the organic material that was there. The organic material was what had the carbon in it, but the fossil does not. Hence, we can no more use carbon-14 dating to determine how old a fossil is than a surgeon can use his or her car keys to form a triple bypass.

An Example from a Grant Review

Last March, I received back a review of a grant that I had submitted in order to fund the rest of my grad student career separately from my advisor (save him money, great CV builder). Unfortunately, I did not get funded, but when I got the comments back, most of them were, well, non sequiturs, which frustrated me to no end.

For example, without trying to get into 15 pages of background information, my proposal was to complete my database of craters on Mars. One of the key points in any database is to actually identify the objects. I had stated how I would do that, by outlining (tracing) the rim of every crater, and that each point along the rim would be recorded in decimal degrees (such as, 56.23421345° North, 128.2342134239° East). Fairly straight-forward.

One of the “Intrinsic Merit Weaknesses, Major” that was noted was, “There is no information provided on the projection and coordinate system that will be used.” That’s a non sequitur because it doesn’t matter — if the data is recorded in decimal degrees, then it can be projected into any coordinate system someone wants.

Another example was the following paragraph. I had stated in the proposal that the database, when completed, would be distributed among the general research community for them to use (that’s right, I learned how to share in kindergarden … I also learned that I was mentally retarded because I’m left-handed). I stated twice in the proposal that it would be distributed through the Mars Crater Consortium’s website, PIGWAD (the USGS’s data website), and PDS (NASA’s data website). This was what the reviewers noted: “No detail is provided as to how the resulting database will be distributed, a task that will not be straightforward given that the [researcher] will be using in-house algorithms.”

Okay, so, first-off we can see that the reviewer missed where I stated that information, twice. But we can also see the non sequitur because the algorithms are to do things like fit a circle to the crater rim, or calculate the average elevation. Those are used to create the database, while the database itself is, well, just a database. “In-house,” “commercial,” “GPN,” and other algorithms are irrelevant to how the final database would be released.

Final Thoughts

The non sequitur is generally fairly easy to spot because it’s one of those things that, when used, will usually make you go, “Huh?” because it doesn’t make sense — it doesn’t follow from the original argument/claim. It’s frequently used in everyday life, just like the ad hominem, though probably the non sequitur is a little harder to spot.

November 14, 2008

Logical Analysis of the Cosmological Argument for the Existence of God


Introduction

As I’ve stated before (like here or here), creationists often use a seeming leap of scientific faith to justify a “proof” for the existence of God from somewhere within the Big Bang theory. So far, I’ve argued against specific scientific claims that would seem (to their proponents) to show why we need something divine to justify our existence.

In this post, however, I’m going to examine this from a purely logical standpoint, critiquing what apparently is known as the “Cosmological Argument” for the existence of (a) G/god(s).

The Claim

The Cosmological Argument actually has its roots at least as far back as Plato and Aristotle, over 2300 years ago. The main premise is that everything (all effects) must have a cause.

There are many different ways of positing the argument, some involve 6 steps, some 4 steps, and some 3 steps (like the one below). They all pretty much say the same thing.

Therefore, I’m going to go with the easier 3-step one, and I am specifically taking my cues for the version of this argument from this person’s blog post:

(1) The universe exists, and there must be an explanation for why it exists.

(2) There are only three possible explanations for why the universe exists: (a) It has always existed. (b) It created itself. (c) It was created by something outside of itself.

(3) Explanation (a) has serious scientific and philosophical problems. Explanation (b) is absurd. Therefore, the universe was created by God.

Critique

Part 1: From a philosophical argument, there really doesn’t need to be an explanation for why something exists. It could just exist. I choose to take 2 steps at a time occasionally “just ’cause,” there really doesn’t need to be any specific reason. So right off the bat, we have a faulty major premise.

If you choose to interpret this from a cause-and-effect argument – the “effect” of the universe existing must have a cause – I would argue that this is not necessarily true. Science’s current concept of the “universe” is, by definition, “everything” and that includes space and time. Therefore, if time did not exist “before” the universe formed, how could there be a cause?

Some may argue that this itself is a logical fallacy of “Special Pleading,” meaning that in this one particular case I am arguing that the rules by which we live and are normally subject to don’t really apply in this special case. I would partially agree with this … however, I would also make the point that the formation of the cosmos is a special case, and the rules by which we live now were likely not in existence “before” the universe came into existence.

Part 2: I would agree that, logically, the three possible explanations for “why” the universe exists are likely correct, though I would point out that this could be a case of the “False Dichotomy” (or I guess “false trichotomy”) logical fallacy: Those three options may not actually be all the possible explanations. We may just not know, especially considering that we’re talking about something that happened “before” the creation of our universe. But let’s examine each of them, anyway:

Part 3: I would agree that, taken at its face, 2(a) does have some scientific problems. Evidence that I have talked about before does seem to show that the universe – at least as we now know it – had a definite beginning. However, that may not actually be the case. Stephen Hawking has posited the idea that the universe and time may be closed, but unbound. To get an idea about what this means, think of a sphere: You could walk along the surface of a sphere literally forever and never come to the edge of it. Therefore it’s closed (it’s a finite size) but unbound (the geometry has no edges, no beginning nor end).

To say that 2(b) is “absurd” is an ad hominem logical fallacy that just ridicules it without providing a reason why it would be false, rather just implying that its false by name-calling. Granted, this is akin to the “Grandfather” paradox of time travel, where it sometimes is put such that you can’t go back in time and kill your grandfather because then you never would have been born to go back in time and kill your grandfather. Another slight wrinkle on this that is less of a paradox and more of an incestual scenario is that you go back in time, kill your “grandfather,” and then end up “arranging things” [rated PG blog] such that you become your own real grandfather.

That seemingly shouldn’t be “allowed” to happen, but again, since we are dealing with the universe itself, there are possible ways that the universe could have caused its own formation. For example, some ideas are that there was a previous universe that went through a “Big Crunch” and then rebound, forming our own universe. In that sense, the previous “universe” was the parent of our own “universe.” However, I’m not sure if any actual theoretical cosmologists put stock in that scenario, so I’m willing to grant that 2(b) is unlikely, but not “absurd.”

The original post then simply states that 2(c) is the only logical conclusion, that something else must have created the universe. The person then commits two HUGE logical fallacies of a non-sequitur – that that “something” that created the universe must have been God (in other words, it doesn’t necessarily follow that the something that created it was “God”) – and the fallacy of the Unstated Major Premise – that “God” actually exists.

To give you an example of why this is an “absurd” argument, think of this scenario: I come across a bird in the forest, sitting on a tree. I have never seen another animal before, nor do I know how it could have been formed, so I follow an apparent line of logic to figure out how it formed: I reason that the bird must have a cause. The cause could be the bird (a) always existed, (b) created itself, or (c) something else created it. (a) is has problems, (b) is “absurd,” and so I reason that God created it. But to you, an outside observer, you realize that I just made a major leap of literally “faith” to go from “something” created it to “God” created it … when more likely it hatched from an egg that was created by its parents and (a) G/god(s) had nothing to do with it even if (s)he/it even exists.

Other Critiques

There are other possible scientific explanations for how our universe came into being. “Brane Theory” is one, that holds that multidimensional membranes somehow interacted to create the universe. Others involve the cyclical approach I mentioned above. Another is that we represent a “pocket” of inflation from another, different, larger universe. We don’t know, but to attribute something that we don’t know to (a) divine creator(s) is yet another logical fallacy, the God of the Gaps.

Another, major, weakness of this argument is … Who/What created God? If everything must have a cause, and the idea that nothing has “always” existed, then what created God? This is a special pleading case as well as an example of the Inconsistency logical fallacy, where they’re stating that the universe can’t not have a cause, but God can.

Further Reading

Much more intelligent philosophers than I have argued about the Cosmological Argument. I invite you to read some other sources (some pro, some con):

September 20, 2008

Flat Earth Society – Introductory Post

Filed under: flat earth concept — Stuart Robbins @ 11:27 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Like my series on the Apollo Moon Hoax, the idea of a “Flat Earth” will be a topic that I will come back to in future blog entries, discussing some specific claims that are made.  For this first post on the topic, I am going to briefly outline the core concept and explain why it is flawed relative to what we know about the Earth, space, physics, and just plain ol’ common sense.

The main premise of the “Flat Earth” idea is that Earth is, well, flat.  People who believe this idea believe that our planet is a a few miles thick, and everything that is on it – continents, oceans, and ice caps – rest on this flat object (“flat” being a relatively thin object considering how large in diameter it would be).  In terms of basic geography, the North Pole is at the center of this disk, and Antarctica is actually a wall of ice that surrounds the outer rim, keeping the oceans from sloshing over.  I kid you not.  Earth is also the fixed center of the Universe, with everything “revolving around it in a plane level with the flat Earth.”

Flat Earth believers (for brevity, I will call them “flaterthers,” a term that I just made up with the emphasis on the second syllable and the first “a” being pronounced like the “u” in “fluff”, fla-TER-thers) point to five main arguments for their beliefs:

  1. Earth says still in space relative to … something.  In the 1800s, physicists thought that there was a universal “thing” called the “ether,” through which light was supposed to travel.  But an 1887 experiment now called the Michelson-Morley experiment disproved this concept by showing there was no preferred direction (even though they were trying to prove it) in perhaps the most famous “null result” in physics history.  However, the flaterther argument somehow uses this to say Earth does NOT move, there actually IS an ether, and somehow this supports their idea … though I honestly don’t understand how.
  2. The second argument that is made is that Earth can’t possibly orbit the Sun because (a) there’s no way for it to maintain its velocity over billions of years given that it’s traveling through an ether and therefore feels resistance, and (b) because when you orbit an object, there’s an acceleration, and any object “ahead” of the acceleration would get squashed and an object “behind” the acceleration would float away.
  3. Objects on a curved surface would fall off.  They’d slide “down” and when they reached the bottom, they’d fall off.  Hence, according to flaterthers, it’s not possible for people in the USA to be standing up and people in Australia to be upside down, relative to those in the USA … Australians would fall off.
  4. On a curved surface, there’s an inconsistent “down” direction, so if someone from the USA were to fly to Australia, they’d now be upside down!  (I’m not sure why this is a separate argument from #3, but they consider it one on their website).
  5. The only way to keep an ocean on the Earth is to keep it in the large bowl that is bound by the great sheets of ice that we normally think of as Antarctica.  And, the only way to keep the air on Earth is to protect it with a large dome.

Since I honestly don’t understand how #1 is used to justify the Earth being flat (they seem to equate that with Earth being the unmoving center of the Universe), I am not going to address it.  In other words, this is the “Non-Sequitur” logical fallacy – the argument that Earth may be stationary relative to some permeating substance doesn’t say anything about Earth being flat. 

#2 is a little difficult to address because it requires some basic physics concepts and math in order to understand.  First off, there are a few things they say that just aren’t true.  For example, they state that Earth orbits “the sun at a radius of around five-hundred million kilometers.”  This is not true.  Earth’s average distance from the Sun is 149,600,000 km, or about 93 million miles.  At the risk of sounding flippant … every school child knows this.  In addition, they say that “Earth is supposed to be a large, spherical shaped ball of rock flying through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour …”  Again, this is over-stated to make it sound impossibly big.  Earth’s average orbital velocity is 29.78 km/s, which is 107,200 km/hr, or about 66,470 mph.  Still pretty fast compared with our every-day lives, but not as big as they make it seem.

Their actual arguments (as opposed to bad math/numbers) are a little more difficult to address with this claim.  First off, no one has actually said Earth has maintained the exact same orbit and the exact same speed for billions of years – that is a Straw Man logical fallacy.  And Earth does travel through a medium – not the ether, but rather the solar wind.  The solar wind is made up of charged particles that are emitted from the Sun and stream outwards in all directions.  In addition, Earth sometimes encounters asteroids that hit it.  Every time something hits Earth, whether it be a giant asteroid or an elementary particle, the momentum from that object is added to Earth’s, and this can act to slow it down or speed it up.  Because asteroids are so much more massive than the solar wind, I’ll address the impact of asteroids:

Earth weighs 5.97*10^24 kg.  That’s a lot.  Let’s look at a dinosaur-killing, mass-extinction-causing asteroid impact – an asteroid that’s, say, 15 km in diameter – or around half the size of Manhattan.  The average velocity of an Earth-crossing asteroid is around 15-20 km/sec, and most asteroids are made of rock, with a density of 3-4 gm/cm^3.  That’s a total mass of 5*10^6 kg, or a difference of 18 orders of magnitude.  That’s about the difference between the mass of our entire galaxy vs. the mass of the planet Mars.  In other words, a dinosaur-killing asteroid event hitting Earth is like you, a person, running into a piece of dust.  Even if that dust is going faster than a speeding bullet, you are not going to feel it.  Similarly, even if Earth gets whacked by these things once every million years, it’s still not going to feel it.  So, unless they are claiming that the ether is more massive than these asteroids, this claim doesn’t hold water (so to speak).

As for the acceleration argument, this is just pretty much wrong.  Our reference frame – the reference frame of EVERYTHING on Earth – is Earth.  We move relative to our planet, our point of view is relative to our planet, and our velocity is relative to our planet.  Yes, Earth goes in a really big circle around the Sun, and so there is a very very very slight accelerating “force outward” away from the Sun, but it is so small that there is no way you can feel it, and you folks who go to Weight Watchers don’t need to try to plan to go and weigh yourself at midnight instead of noon to get a lighter weigh-in.

Argument #3 and 4 I’m going to lump together into the basic concept of a misunderstanding of gravity.  As I said in the paragraph above, Earth is our reference frame for everything in our daily lives, and that’s because it is so big and we are so close to it (relative to everything else) that we are completely dominated by its gravity.  In their third point, they argue that people would simply fall off of a round Earth once they get to the edge that “goes down.”  Their analogy is a beach ball, where if you simply pour sand on the top of a beach ball, it will follow the curve of the ball until it gets to the side and then just fall off.

The reason why this analogy doesn’t work is that the beach ball has effectively no gravity when compared with Earth.  Things “fall down” because gravity pulls it “down.”  “Down” is always towards the center of Earth (until you get beyond Earth’s gravitational pull).  Now, if the beach ball were out in empty space and it was the most massive object around, a grain of sand that was placed on it wouldn’t move … it wouldn’t “fall” anywhere because “down” would be towards the center of the beach ball, regardless of whether the sand was placed next to the part where you blow into the beach ball or placed on the opposite side.

This is why when an American goes to Australia, the American is not standing on their head when they get there.  Throughout the flight (or boat ride) over, “down” is constantly changing so that it always points towards the center of Earth.  In other words, yes, the plane effectively does turn upside down during the flight.  It just does it very very slowly and you don’t notice it because it’s just following the curve of the planet, with the bottom of the plane always facing the surface of Earth.  (And as a side note, if you go to Australia, stay longer in that country than it took you to fly there, speaking from personal experience.)

As for argument #5, I really just have to resort to the ad hominem response:  This is absurd.  The belief that Earth is covered by a dome to keep the air in and that the edge is a giant sheet of ice to keep the ocean in is a juvenile concept that requires massive conspiratorial claims to maintain (which they do) since it negates space telescopes, the Apollo lunar missions, and expeditions to Antarctica, among other things.  In addition, it flies in the face of simplicity, plausibility, and most people who are older than 5.

That’ll wrap up this post on introducing the Flat Earth concept (and flaterthers).  In future posts, I will address more specific problems with it, such as their explanation for seasons, sunsets, tides, their concept of gravity, and other tidbits.

Blog at WordPress.com.