Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example

Fellow Molly-winner Scott Hatfield (who sounds like a really nice guy, judging from the textual evidence available) suggested I save a comment I posted at Pharyngula. Now, I know I improve drastically upon revision, but the text reproduced below will not be modified very much (mostly external hyperlinks added and stuff like that).

I was provoked by the following comment from a bloke named Russell:

I have encountered Objectivists and Marxists who seem to me fundamentalist in their adherence to the writings they take as foundational, in much the same manner as fundamentalist Christians. But neither Dawkins nor Harris strike me as ideological in that sense, and it seems as odd to me to describe an Objectivist as a fundamentalist atheist as it would to describe a Calvinist Christian as a fundamentalist determinist. Atheism and determinism are merely doctrines of Objectivism and Calvinism, respectively, and it is the ideology as a whole that the adherent takes in a fundamentalist fashion.

Were I less enamored of the sound of my own words, I would have stopped with a simple “thank you”. However, you little know me if you hypothesize of such a stoppage ever occurring. The proposal I made (which popped into my head while I was walking to the office this morning) is reproduced below the fold.

Following Godwin’s sterling example, I would like to propose a Law. I use that word only half in jest, for this will be a Law in both the legal and the scientific senses of that word. First, it is an empirical statement:

1. In any discussion of atheism (skepticism, etc.), the probability that someone will compare a vocal atheist to religious fundamentalists increases to one.

Following this statement comes the second half, which is a judgment:

2. The person who makes this comparison will be considered to have lost the argument.

I’m not trying to make “fundamentalist” a taboo word. The point is that it’s not logical to stick that word upon somebody when “strident”, “vocal” or “inflexible” are actually the qualities for which you think they need criticism.

Is “Nazi” an appropriate description of all people who express authoritarian views, who want to see the world march in lockstep? No, because that word refers to a specific (loathsome) historical movement and its modern descendants. If you want to call somebody a Nazi, you have to back it up. Never forget, laws were made for people, not the other way round: if you have an argument and evidence on your side, sensible folk will let you “Godwin the thread”. The ethic behind Godwin’s Law is to make a memetically infectious mechanism to ensure that arguments are well-founded, and the same goes for the Dawkinsian analogue I propose.

People writing articles for glossy magazines like to look at these post-God Delusion kerfluffles and say, “The atheists are divided into just as many denominations as the Protestants!” In a spectacularly unfunny two-part episode, South Park made a similar jest. (“Spectacularly unfunny”? I’m the blogger; I get to make these judgments.) It’s just so satisfying to make that kind of jab. Like picking a scab, it’s simple and inviting, though tending to create messy consequences. Anybody can do it: religious folk can blast the “New Atheists” for intolerance, while the “appeaser atheists” can hold themselves high while saying, “We’re better people than that.” It’s almost as if Us-vs.-Them dichotomies must be built at all costs. Is self-righteous indignation really that addictive? Or, perhaps, are we throwing out words simply because the inclination to do so is a meme — an idea with attitude! — which has lodged into our thinking the way a virus penetrates a cell? I might have no more reason to call a person “fundamentalist” than I would to call them “deaf as a post”; both are simply convenient phrases I have close at hand.

How do you defeat a meme of exceptional infectiousness? Clearly, with another meme of the same Cogito-hazard rating!

If the act of labeling a man a Nazi is a parasitic thought-unit, we had better provide some kind of herd immunity, which requires distributing memetic information throughout a significant fraction of the population. Hence, Godwin’s Law!

[UPDATE (18 July 2007): Yes, Godwin was thinking in terms of memes and counter-memes.]

To me, the most interesting part of this issue is that the claims made by various “denominations” — New Atheists, New Humanists, the People’s Front of Humanism, the Humanist Popular People’s Front and so forth — are in principle empirically testable. What’s more, this matters to us: in one form or another, we all acknowledge the virtue in real-world data.

“What on earth is Blake talking about now?”

OK, put it this way: Dawkins has given examples of evidence which could convince him that a god exists (or at least that there exist tremendously powerful forces as yet unknown to science). Carl Sagan has made similar statements, though more in the context, “This is the evidence which could well have existed, but for some reason doesn’t.” Why, as he asks in The Varieties of Scientific Experience, is God so clear in the Bible and so obscure in the world?

Surely, if Atheist Pope Richard I is willing to make such statements, he is also willing to consider evidence that his chosen tactic for effecting change is ineffective! Not morally unjustified, mind you — leveling that judgment leads only to fog and confusion. The critical point is that one could, by psychological and anthropological methods, judge the effects which Dawkins’ book and lecture-circuit career have on different segments of the populace. This is a question not for philosophy, but for science.

Furthermore, if we phrase the problem as a scientific question, then we can bring our scientific maturity to the issue. We can take a deep breath and pull out the Baloney Detection Kit. We can even hold mutually contradictory ideas simultaneously in mind as alternate working hypotheses. Really. This is part of the training scientists get during their youthful travels in the mysterious Orient. (As Peter Shor said earlier today, “Interpretations of quantum mechanics, unlike Gods, are not jealous, and thus it is safe to believe in more than one at the same time.”)

What empirical evidence we have on this matter today is probably contaminated by all sorts of selection bias. It is suggestive, though certainly not conclusive, that The God Delusion has sold so astonishingly well — but that’s only a data point, not a theory of human behavior. We cannot with any fidelity judge whether a tactic is good or bad until we have a reliable way of estimating what its effects will be. It’s tough, but that’s the way the world works. Certainly, the Atheism Is The New Black crowd should have little trouble accepting this state of affairs, given that a predetermined moral order to the Universe is just as unsupported by the evidence as a personal, interventionist Creator.

We’re supposed to be the Reality-Based Community. Let’s act like it. . . .

UPDATE (17 July 2007): Welcome, fellow Pharyngulans. Do you know what these are?

17 thoughts on “Recycled Blake Stacey: Following Godwin’s Example”

  1. So all at once I find out (a) you have a blog – how awesome, I suppose I should have been checking that link more often in Pharyngula comments; (b) atheism is the new black – I really wish someone had mentioned this to me before, I’m clearly more fashionable than previously thought; and (c) you read Language Log – this is really too much for me to handle all at once!

    Great post, by the way, but I’m curious about something. Do you really think people like Dawkins are most concerned with the effectiveness of their methods? He always seems to me like he cares more about telling the truth than just having an attractive message. I just can never tell if he’s really trying to “convert” anyone, and if so, who that target would be.

  2. It’s great to hear from another Language Log fan!

    Hmmm, I can see where I gave the wrong impression. I’ll agree with you that from everything I see, Dawkins “cares more about telling the truth than just having an attractive message” — I just think that if solid psychological evidence indicated that what he was doing was counterproductive (for some segment of the population) then he’d seriously consider trying a different tack, in parallel with his current approach if nothing else. The way one speaks is not entirely determined by the ideas one wishes to convey.

    “Solid psychological evidence” is, I admit, something of a contradiction in terms. :-/

    (By the way, I just started this gig on 21 March, so you haven’t been out of the loop for terribly long.)

  3. Yeah, I didn’t know you had a blog, either. Bastard! I’m so upset at being left out of the loop that I immediately blogrolled you. That’ll learn ya!

    Anyway, I have no appropriate comments, as usual. I do completely support Blake’s Law. It makes complete sense. The “fundamentalist atheist” (more generally, “fundamentalist ____”, where “____” is anything other than “Christian”, since the term has a genuine, self-applied meaning in that context) meme is a dangerous one because, like the “Nazi ____” meme, it serves to kill all debate and create a vast gulf between positions that honestly have more in common than not.

    I vote we should include corollaries about “Neville Chamberlain ____” and “Winston Churchill ____”, as well; Orac already named them as indirect extensions of Godwin, but it’s nice to have these things explicit.

    In fact, maybe you could come up with seven numbered corollaries, and we could refer to specific ones by citing “Blake’s X”. >.>

  4. nicole,
    Dawkins is very eloquent and poetic in his language, making his message very attracive. As for being concerned with the effectiveness of his message, I’ve seen several interviews with him where he admits that he takes his critics (Shermer, Kraus, Tyson, etc.) seriously and questions his own tactics. But he believes that what he’s doing is raising conscienceness and that complements–not works against–those who use different tactics.
    As for his target audience:
    A) Empower atheists to stand up and be counted
    B) Convince agnostics to take that final step
    C) Raise awareness–let theists know that we’re here and won’t be ignored
    D) Convert theists (low expectations here, but sometimes people surprise you)
    That’s my take anyway,
    ps—nice post, Blake

  5. I will have to do the same. I am absolutely not posting this comment in order to attract people to my own fledgling blog, either. ;-)

    Seriously Blake: good points, well made.

  6. Despard:

    Thanks for the kind words. (I figure this is one post which could stand some revising and general tightening-up, but people seem to like it.) You should try submitting your posts to carnivals — maybe Encephalon in your case. If you haven’t already, that is, of course.

  7. Do you really think people like Dawkins are most concerned with the effectiveness of their methods?

    As Blake nicely said, probably but perhaps not. But I think he seems reasonably honest, so if there were even somewhat decent evidence that his approach was having undesirable consequences, and if he cared more about just telling his views than changing his tactics, I think he would at minimum be willing to admit as much.

  8. The words one sprinkles on the internet get replicated in the strangest places. I guess I should say: you’re welcome.

  9. I like it. Stacey’s Law, clear, concise and very effective. I came here after visiting Ken MacLeod’s blog post about 21st Century Atheism and I’m quite impressed; you’re very insightful and I’ve added your feed to my must-read list.

    Also, I’m posting this comment to plug my own blog because I’m a jerk like that, hehe.

  10. Nice quote from that other Russell. I couldn’t actually recall writing anything quite like that, but it sounded about right until the last sentence, which seems a bit wonky. I had to go and make sure that it wasn’t me. :D

    Seems as if the Alzheimer’s hasn’t struck quite yet.

  11. The term “fundamentalist” could become appropriate. After all, it originally and properly was used to describe a particular sect of Christianity, and I believe people still object to its being used to describe members of other religions, or Christian groups.

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