Equivocation and Faith

The N. Y. Times published an opinion piece by Linda Kinstler titled Can Silicon Valley Find God?

Among other things, it includes a common example of an equivocation fallacy used by religious apologists.

“It is difficult not to remark upon the fact that many of those beliefs, such as that advanced artificial intelligence could destroy the known world, or that humanity is destined to colonize Mars, are no less leaps of faith than believing in a kind and loving God.”

Equivocation is a fallacy by which a specific word or phrase in an argument is used with more than one meaning. The use of “faith” in this context is an attempt to give religious faith the same credibility as reason and evidence. This specific equivocation is so common that it is often addressed by skeptics and atheists. (I provide a couple of examples below.) It effectively captures one of the biggest misunderstandings the religious and nonscientific have about science.

The opinion piece also includes a category error involving an implicit denigration of polyamory. The article states:

A scene from the HBO series “Silicon Valley” satirized this cultural aversion: “You can be openly polyamorous, and people here will call you brave. You can put microdoses of LSD in your cereal, and people will call you a pioneer,” one character says after the chief executive of his company outs another tech worker as a believer. “But the one thing you cannot be is a Christian.”

Relationship types are in a different category than religious affiliation or drug usage, so the comparison is meaningless. But the implication of this example is that polyamory is not as okay as monogamy. Otherwise, this example would have no emotional impact.

I address these issues more completely in an email I sent to Kinstler. I don’t expect it to do any good, and I haven’t received a response. But I think it’s worth the effort once in a while to call out these types of fallacious arguments and their related bigotry.

Email as sent:

I saw your opinion piece in the N.Y. Times. As someone who is Jewish, what would your reaction be if someone wrote that Jews worship Zeus? I am guessing you would consider it to be ignorant. Well, you have done the equivalent by stating that beliefs such as “… that advanced artificial intelligence could destroy the known world, … are no less leaps of faith than believing in a kind and loving God.”

There is a distinction between epistemologies that are based on reason and evidence and those that are based on faith and dogma. As described by Barbara Smoker  “Faith … means firm belief in the absence of evidence … It there were objective evidence for its doctrines, it would no longer be faith; it would be knowledge.” (“Should We Respect Religion” in “The Harm Done by Religion” published by the Center for Inquiry) You have engaged in the fallacy of equivocation. You are using faith to mean something it doesn’t. As John Campbell says “”No one can seriously equate belief in gravity with belief in angels. The former is based upon mountains of testable evidence notably lacking among those that believe the latter. Referring to the basis of both beliefs as ‘faith’ without distinguishing between how that term is being used is an intellectually dishonest means of manufacturing credibility from thin air.” (“25 Fallacies in the Case for Christianity”, Skeptic Magazine, Vol 26, No 2, 2021). Another major epistemological distinction is that most people that use reason and evidence are willing to change their minds based on new reasoning or evidence. Faith and dogmatic belief generally preclude this.

To use one of your examples, there is plenty of reason and evidence to support the idea that advanced artificial intelligence could destroy the known world. It’s not even difficult to come up with such scenarios. For further discussion, you might look at “Superintelligence” by Nick Bostrom. There are also quite a few science fiction novels addressing this scenario including the 1976 classic “Colossus” by D. F. Jones. In contrast, belief in god (loving or otherwise) requires faith because it is inconsistent with both logic and evidence. See, for example, “The Impossibility of God” edited by Michael Martin and Ricki Monnier and “God: The Failed Hypothesis: How Science Shows That God Does Not Exist” by Victor J. Stenger.

Your article discusses whether or not religion should be present in the workplace. For example, you state, “One Seattle engineer told me he was careful not to speak “Christianese” in the workplace, for fear of alienating his colleagues.” That engineer is correct. I certainly felt alienated when a Christian coworker suggested I leave the country because of my beliefs. I’ve also had two different Christian coworkers tell me they think I’m going to hell. Being told by someone that they think I’m evil doesn’t exactly endear them to me. To use one of your examples, most Christians consider polyamory to be immoral. Simply saying you are Christian implies this belief. And isn’t this religious condemnation the reason you used this as an example? Would there have been the same emotional response if the quote had used “monogamous” instead? But, of course, comparing religions and relationship types is rhetoric without substance due to the category error involved. Do you honestly believe that openly stating insulting beliefs in the workplace is unifying, productive, and ethical?

To be clear, this problem isn’t limited to Christianity. Religions are doctrinally in opposition. Yahweh is not Allah is not Zeus. Reincarnation does not lead to Valhalla.  Claiming belief in one religion is claiming that all other religions are false. By bringing religion (or atheism) into the workplace (or the public square), you inherently create conflict.

I fully agree that ethics need to be much more a part of technology development than they have been. But the way to do this is through objective analysis not through faith and dogma or old aphorisms – even the Golden Rule has serious moral problems when analyzed logically.

Could you have a serious conversation about Judaism with someone that doesn’t understand that Judaism is based on the Torah? Similarly, how can a serious conversation about science be had with someone that doesn’t understand the most basic aspect of it. Science is based on reason and evidence; faith has no place in science. In fact, it is not possible to have an objective discussion about anything when people argue from faith.

Finally, starting a discussion about ethics with an untruth doesn’t seem like the best approach.

(End email as sent.)

(I found the cover image splashed around the net. I didn’t find anything indicating a copyright. It illustrates how absurd equivocation can be.)

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