The Ray Comfort Argument
Posted: 02 June 2011 05:14 PM   [ Ignore ]
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I apologize if this is thread necromancy, I read a few pages and didn’t see this particular point covered. I also apologize if this is the wrong board, I could not tell if this belonged firmly in philosophy or in science.

There’s an argument that comes up that I often think of as the Ray Comfort argument (no, not about bananas), which is essentially a postmodern take on knowledge. In this argument, the believer points to the books, articles, lectures that an atheist (or any scientifically minded) person has read and says that they accept them on faith. I, for instance, have never conducted a radiometric dating test myself, therefor I must accept it on faith, which makes it no different from religious faith. I, myself, have never lived in Roman times, so my knowledge gained from books, articles or lectures is no different than a Christian believing in the Bible.

My answer is essentially thus: It is true that I take much of my scientific knowledge on faith, but it’s a faith grounded in corroborated evidence. I’ve seen smaller evidence of scientific theory and geology and so on and so things like radiometric dating fits into that same framework. And so between consensus and other evidence that corroborates the structure, I accept that science. I am also open to evidence, should it be scientifically tested, that would say that science is wrong. And I’d be willing to make this claim for any knowledge I hold.

While I feel my answer is an honest response and does respond to the critique, I don’t feel it’s rhetorically satisfying. Perhaps I’m looking for a more concise way to state my argument. I would think that other people have come across this type of debate before and hope they might have advice or experience.

I call it the Ray Comfort argument, by the way, because he’s the person I see using it most frequently.

Thanks for any constructive comments.

Posted: 02 June 2011 08:35 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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I agree that most of us, scientists included, accept much of what we read by faith rather than by personal verification.  However, some of us, especially scientists, do attempt to verify some of the data given us.  For example, as soon as I could check out and understand elementary library books concerning chemistry, I performed as many of the experiments as I could.  I learned that the authors were telling the truth as far as I could verify.  (In the few cases where I couldn’t get the experiment to fit the data didn’t give up, but rather filed it away for later testing.  Eventually I found the problem then could move on.)  I also read the bible and other fairytales.  Just as quickly, I was able to determine that most of the stories that were capable of being replicated had a low probability of truth, that is, were demonstrably false.

Since I don’t have time or resources to check out everything, I judge each new piece of data according to a number of factors - How strongly do I trust the source?  How reasonable does it sound?  Does it fit when I examine it according to the principles of Occams’s Razor?  Will belief or disbelief in it make any difference in my life? 

I’m sure I could come up with a more comprehensive set of examination ideas, but this will do for now.  I’m not sure what you are looking for “rhetorically” but it’s my system and I feel it works for me.



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Posted: 03 June 2011 03:47 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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I’m assuming that the discussions you speak of often start out with something to the effect of, “Science is just another type of religion.”  I think if there’s any validity in that statement it would hinge on how religion is defined. PLaClare has an interesting, somewhat controversial, and I think valid, opinion about how religion can be defined.  Check out his posts.

But using the common idea of religious “faith”,  that is, a belief in a supernatural being, including a dictum that it is morally reprehensible to question that belief, you run across the same sort of dichotomy that occurs when a creationist and skeptic argue about the theory of evolution.  In my case, when I say in casual conversation that I have “faith” in an idea I’m not implying that idea is unchallengeable, in fact I’m indicating the opposite.  I don’t think most religious people use the word that way in talking about their religion. My use of the term I’m implies that I’m allowing for an element of doubt and I don’t think the religious use of the term does that, at least not in any unconvoluted way.

So, my, admittedly, unsophisticated response to the challenge you cite is; “Is it part of your “faith” that you may, or must, always be open to questioning the most basic tenets of your “faith”; that given a solid body of repeatable evidence it is a “virtue” to reconsider and revise those tenets, and, conversely is it a “sin” to refuse to honestly and objectively evaluate that evidence, to the best of your ability, when it is presented?”

If your opponent agrees with you, you have fertile ground for a fascinating conversation.  If not, well…. “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!!”.

That’s the response I’ve come up with.  I don’t know that it’s any more satisfying rhetorically, and I’ve no scientific background, so I’m writing about something I’m not all that educated about.  A large part of my role in life seems to be positing faulty ideas, with the hope it helps others to clarify better ones. 

I liked your question.  I’m fairly new here, so I enjoyed the chance to mull it over,  and even if it’s old ground, sometimes it pays to reseed it.  Thanks.

[ Edited: 03 June 2011 05:10 AM by Jeciron ]

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Posted: 03 June 2011 04:55 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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Welcome, Hippibashr. The response you give is the correct and appropriate one. The difference between faith-based and evidence-based belief is not one of having verified every step in one’s belief system. That would be impossible for anyone to do. It’s the difference between being able to verify every step and not being able to verify every step.

In a science-based belief system one is able to verify every step, by going back to the original studies and papers, or by redoing the experiments oneself.

In a faith-based belief system there is always a break. There is a step which not only has one not verified, but that one is not able to verify; one is forced to take it on faith.

Perhaps a stronger way to put this is that in a science-based belief system one’s authorities are always defeasible by experiment. (The authorities are only authorities in having done something that any competent person could do for him or herself).

In a faith-based belief system the authority’s words must be taken without question. That’s the whole idea behind Biblical or Papal infallibility, and supposed knowledge by revelation. There’s always a stage at which the authority’s claim of X is uncorroborated by any evidence and unable to be defended on the merits. It’s simply asserted that you must believe it, or else.

Sophists like Comfort are schooled in gaming debates, usually by obscuring falsehoods. I wouldn’t get too put out by them.



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Posted: 04 June 2011 11:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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In this argument, the believer points to the books, articles, lectures that an atheist (or any scientifically minded) person has read and says that they accept them on faith.

There may be an element of truth to that, but if so, I would submit that it falls within the realm of half truth.

Like Occam said, I don’t have time to check out everything under the sun. Some of it because it’s not important to me, or if it is, I have to deal with more immidiate concerns such as making a living so I can pay my bills.

The nice thing at least about the skeptical community’s media…such as Skeptic, Skeptical Inquirer, of forums like this, is that whatever is published or posted gets quite a bit of feedback with errors ruthlessly exposed, and with the opportunity availble for those to make points and counterpoints. In this sense at least, I don’t so much as accept anything on faith as I offer provisional acceptance if somebody can make a convincing case for their position based on whatever evidence they have to support it.

That provisional acceptance is subject to either verification/re-inforcement or rejection in favour of something else depending on whether a further examination of the evidence justifies it.


Question authority and think for yourself. Big Brother does not know best and never has.

Posted: 06 June 2011 12:12 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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I’m with Occam.  I don’t have the time, resources, knowhow, or even inclination to verify every little piece of scientific info out there.  So I look into it as much as I can and try to make a reasoned, informed decision on things.  Besides, trying to verify everything for yourself is kind of insane.


“Ah, I love your religion - for the crazy! Virgin birth, water into wine; it’s like Harry Potter, but it causes genocide and bad folk music.” -Roger Smith

Posted: 06 June 2011 04:09 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I like to make a distinction between “faith” and “trust” in these discussions. I would say I trust scientists, rather than have faith in them - the distinction being that I have reason to believe scientists’ claims because I feel their motives are genuine and their methods rigorous, whereas faith would be belief without reason.


“What people do is they confuse cynicism with skepticism. Cynicism is ‘you can’t change anything, everything sucks, there’s no point to anything.’ Skepticism is, ‘well, I’m not so sure.’” -Bill Nye

Posted: 12 June 2011 02:00 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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What Ray Comfort, and others like him, live by, is that there are some people who take science on faith. This is sometimes labeled “scientism”. It can be just as harmful as religious faith because there is a lot bad science out there. What I think you are referring to is people who take the fact that some people treat science like faith and claim that all science is taken on faith. Not logically sound, obviously. It is just as bad as an atheist who treats anyone who goes to church like a fundamentalist.

The antidote for me was to do a little research be sure that I understand concepts like premise, hypothesis, theory and scientific consensus. Darwin’s theory is a good one to use as an example since he was proposing a hypothesis and it is only since his time that it has grown into a theory. Also, I watched Julia Sweeney’s Letting Go of God last night (now on Netflix), she pointed out that Stephen Hawking admitted that some of his fundamental statements on black holes had been wrong, the kind of thing a theist would never do, but something that is critical to understanding what science is and how it works.

Posted: 12 June 2011 04:16 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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My view is that for a scientific theory to be acceptable in the scientific community it must meet the standards of falsification and be supportable or at least not in conflict with other accepted scientific theories.
A perfect case in point is Newtonian physics. While it seemingly works perfectly from observable evidence, it turned out to be in conflict with the later Einstein’s theory of Relativity. Thus, while we use Newtonian physics in many applications, it cannot be considered as an acceptable scientific theory with universal application.

and from wiki,

The central role of a crisis, which lies at the core of Kuhn’s theory, was also stressed by Albert Einstein. “Nearly every great advance in science,” he pointed out, “arises from a crisis in the old theory, through an endeavor to find a way out of the difficulties created. We must examine old ideas, old theories, although they belong to the past, for this is the only way to understand the importance of the new ones and the extent of their validity” (Einstein and Infeld 75). In the case of new physics, the old ideas and theories are those of classical Newtonian mechanics first introduced by the seventeenth-century Scientific Revolution. Their emergence marked not only the birth of modern science but, by extension, is often considered a starting point of modern Western civilization (Butterfield 192).

No such rigorous testing and falsification exists in Theism and especially in fundamental theistic scripture. It seems that, except for a general agreement that there is only one supreme being (God), every scripture is in conflict with every other scripture. No such condition is tolerated in science.

But the main difference is that in science conflicting issues are resolved by testing and falsification, while in religion conflicting faiths and beliefs are resolved by holy wars between fundamentalist religions or a threat of eternal damnation for individual doubters and questioners.

[ Edited: 12 June 2011 04:37 PM by Write4U ]

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